Liverpool v Fulham: Cagey Cottagers to disrupt Reds' rhythm
Liverpool are on their worst ever run of league results at home, and Kevin Hatchard believes gritty Fulham will make life difficult for them at Anfield...
Reds fighting fires from back to front
While there's no doubt that the loss of defensive rock Virgil van Dijk (and indeed a clutch of other players) has derailed Liverpool's title defence, other problems have surfaced. Liverpool were beaten 1-0 by Chelsea on Thursday, a record fifth straight Premier League home defeat, and the loss showcased the issues that Jürgen Klopp knows he has to deal with.
The much-vaunted front three that has terrorised defences for years looks a jaded unit, lacking rhythm.
Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have played an extraordinary amount of football since they were put together, a situation that was recently exacerbated by the loss to injury of Diogo Jota. Mane has scored just seven goals in 24 games (he has netted 40 league goals across the last two seasons) and his Infogol xG figure is 10.37, which suggests he simply isn't as clinical as usual. For example, last season the Senegal international overperformed xG, scoring 18 goals from an xG of 14.51. Firmino has scored six Premier League goals from an xG of 10.48, so he's squandering chances too.
Salah has bucked that trend, and remains the division's top scorer with 17 goals. That's why it raised eyebrows when he was withdrawn by Klopp after barely an hour of the Chelsea game, although Klopp insists it was a fitness decision, and there is no problem between manager and player. That's just as well, because Salah remains the Reds' most effective attacking player.
There are clear issues in defence too. Chelsea unashamedly tried to get in behind a high defensive line time and time again on Thursday, and Everton's opener in the Merseyside derby came from a clever Richarlison run in behind, and a delightful pass from James Rodriguez. Yes, van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are all out, but this is about structure as well as personnel. Liverpool have conceded 35 goals, and at time of writing, that was the worst defensive record in the top half.
Ozan Kabak is an injury doubt for Sunday's game, while skipper Jordan Henderson is still on the sidelines. Diogo Jota is pushing for a starting spot, having returned to action after a three-month absence in midweek.
Cottagers still in the survival mix
It's testament to the work Scott Parker and his Fulham players have done that they have a genuine chance of avoiding relegation with 11 games to go. With the tension seemingly getting to Newcastle (there were recently reports of a training-ground dust-up between Steve Bruce and Matt Ritchie), and Brighton trying to set some kind of record for the biggest gap between Expected Goals and actual goals, there is scope for the West London club to avoid another immediate return to the Championship.
That said, Parker's men have found wins very hard to come by. They have taken maximum points from just two of their last 17 games, and they have only scored 21 goals in 27 games. It's their defending that has kept them from being cut adrift - they have leaked just 33 goals, and no-one in the bottom half has a better record. They are very tough to beat on the road, as evidenced by a seven-match unbeaten sequence away from Craven Cottage, a run that includes a draw at Tottenham and a win at Everton.
Parker has no fresh injury concerns, with midfielder Tom Cairney still on the sidelines.
Fulham can hang in there
Liverpool have lost their last five home games, and they have issues all over the pitch. It's unusual to see the hosts trade as big as 1.43 in the Match Odds market against a promoted side, but it feels justified at present.
Fulham's only away defeat by more than one goal was against Manchester City, and that was back in early December. They can make life awkward for Liverpool, and the pace of Ademola Lookman could be a real threat.
I'll back Fulham here -1.0 & -1.5 on the Asian Handicap at 1.94, which means if they lose by a goal we get a half-win, and we only lose completely if they are beaten by two goals or more.
Unders looks like value
Liverpool haven't scored a league goal in open play at home in 2021, and Fulham will look to upset their rhythm with gritty and solid defending. 15 of Fulham's last 17 PL games have featured fewer than three goals, and I'll go for that outcome again here by backing Under 2.5 Goals at a generous-looking 2.24.
At the other end, I do think Ademola Lookman is capable of getting in behind the high line - he is 9/2 to score at any time, and is 10/11 to have at least one shot on target. He's managed 20 shots on target in his 24 PL appearances, and grabbed the winner in the recent 1-0 win over Sheffield United.