If Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic thought some of his players were “scared” in a six-point belter against Huddersfield Town, one shudders to think what could be going through their minds ahead of Sunday’s contest against what will be a very angry and title-chasing Liverpool side at Anfield.
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The promoted Cottagers (1-2-8) are at the foot of the table, in very real danger of being a one-season wonder as they have shipped a Premier League-record 29 goals through 11 matches. Despite being given a vote of confidence by owner Shahid Khan before last weekend’s 1-0 loss that gave Huddersfield their first win, there is a very real sense Jokanovic is managing for his job with the international break following the final whistle.
“I don’t know if some players were a little bit scared about this kind of responsibility that’s in front of us, and we didn’t perform enough,” Jokanovic said after being consigned to Monday’s defeat by an own goal from Timothy Fosu-Mensah. “You don’t need to be so talented to fight and show enough energy to compete in a Premier League game.
“I don’t know if our preparation wasn’t good enough or if they didn’t understand how important this game was.”
The only player Jokanovic spared a tongue-lashing was teenage starlet Ryan Sessegnon, who has been bounced up and down the left side to try and help jump-start Fulham. The 18-year-old, a driving force in Fulham’s promotion last season with 16 goals in the Championship, has just one in 13 matches in all competitions this term and recently returned to left back to shore up Fulham’s defence, but to no avail.
The Cottagers have dropped six on the trot in all competitions and gone 334 minutes without a goal overall since Sessegnon bagged his only marker in a 4-2 loss at Cardiff City on Oct. 20. They have taken just one point from their six road matches in league play, yielding 16 with only five in reply.
Midfielder Kevin McDonald, who was introduced at halftime versus Huddersfield to add more bite to the side, is questionable for this match after suffering an ankle injury 19 minutes after his entry. Cyrus Christie, who replaced an ineffective Fosu-Mensah at halftime, may be in line to start at right back.
Liverpool (8-3-0) are third in the table, two points behind reigning champions Manchester City and trailing Chelsea on goal difference. But for the second time, manager Jurgen Klopp is looking for his side to show a response after a clunker on the road in Champions League play.
The Merseysides frittered away an excellent chance to put one foot through the door to the knockout round Tuesday, losing 2-0 at Red Star Belgrade. The defeat was a shock considering how Liverpool put the same side to the sword in a 4-0 rout at Anfield a fortnight ago.
Liverpool have six points and a better goal difference than Napoli but technically trail the Italian side by virtue of their 1-0 loss to them. With just two points separating the four sides in Group C, though, there is everything still to play for in the final two matches.
“For us, it was not clicking, it was not easy,” Klopp said post-match. “We never really came back into the situations. We had the moments. We played good balls in, in the right moment. But, similar to the first half, in different situations we had the ball in the box and we could not really finish or they got a leg in between. I saw, unfortunately, a few games like this already and it’s really difficult to find your mojo back, that you can do the right thing in the right moment very naturally.”
While some will note Klopp did not bring in-form winger Xherdan Shaqiri to Serbia to avoid the distractions that come with Shaqiri’s Kosovo heritage or the fact Daniel Sturridge – getting the start over Roberto Firmino – failed to score on a gilt-edged chance early, the greater concern is Liverpool’s midfield right now scares no one. Summer acquisitions Naby Keita and Fabinho were spectators Tuesday while James Milner, Adam Lallana and Giorginio Wijnaldum were second-best throughout, which Lallana readily conceded.
“As players we’ve got to take responsibility. It was a slow start all round really, and we gave them far too many opportunities – especially from set-pieces,” Lallana told Liverpoolfc.com. “Of course there will be a reaction. It’s not the first time we’ve lost games and it’s about how you react and how you bounce back, but we are thoroughly disappointed to come away with nothing.”
Firmino is likely to be restored to his role as central attacker, but his empty 45-minute stint continued a dry patch in which the Brasil international has one goal in his last 10 appearances. Mohamed Salah has gone two matches without a goal after a purple patch in which he had four to go with two assists in Liverpool’s previous three games.
This is the first match between the teams since Liverpool completed the double in the 2013-14 season with a 3-2 victory at Craven Cottage on Steven Gerrard’s stoppage-time penalty. Liverpool have won four on the bounce over the Cottagers, who have one win in 13 Premier League visits to Anfield (1-4-8).
The lone victory came courtesy of an own goal by Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel in the 2011-12 season -which also stands as Fulham’s lone goal in their last eight matches at Anfield. The Reds have outscored Fulham 25-3 at home in the Premier League era.
Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are heavy, heavy favourites to compound Fulham’s misery with 1/10 odds to take all three points. Even a draw seems far-fetched to oddsmakers at 9/1, while a shock scoreline that sees the Cottagers record their second Premier League win at Anfield offers 22/1 odds.
Liverpool are also 1/3 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored, and the 17/4 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline show just how little oddsmakers rate Fulham’s defence. The odds of a draw below 2.5 goals are 14/1 and 25/1 for a deadlock of 2-2 or higher. The odds on a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline for the Cottagers is a staggering 70/1. while one over 2.5 goals is still out there at 40/1.
Salah leads a procession of 10 Liverpool players considered better chances of a first-goal scorer than Mitrovic, who tops Fulham’s options at 16/1. The Egypt international is listed at 23/10, followed by Sturridge and Sadio Mane (16/5), then Firmino and Divock Origi (7/2) and Shaqiri (11/2).
For any-time goal-scorers, oddsmakers list five Liverpool players as better than even money — Salah (2/5), Sturridge (7/10), Mane (7/10) Firmino (4/5), and Origi (5/6) — with Shaqiri just off the pace at 11/8.
It should not end for Jokanovic like this, not after he built Fulham over the past two-plus seasons to earn promotion, and not with one of England’s most precocious talents in Sessegnon. But this is one of the dangers of spending money for the sake of spending money to stay in the Premier League. The Mitrovic signing is easy to justify, but it is the other £80 million that has yet to prove a positive return on investment that has the Cottagers in trouble. The defence, regardless of who Jokanovic has tried on the back four, has been in shambles, and the goals that came so easily in the Championship have failed to materialise.
Now add in the prospects of playing a severely agitated Liverpool team, and you have the makings for a potential firing come Monday morning at Craven Cottage. Klopp has some riddles to solve, most notably how to get Firmino going and exactly who his three best midfielders are. Having his talisman Jordan Henderson back will at least partially answer this question, but who else? There are all sorts of permutations, though the original trio of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum could be the best three while Klopp goes through a “horses for courses” style of rotation.
Liverpool should get back on track — it really cannot afford a draw or a loss given no one knows if or when City are going to drop points — but the key is Fulham’s level of resistance. A 1-0 or a 2-0 loss at Anfield can be forgiven, maybe even a 3-0 setback if things just don’t go in the Cottagers’ favour. But a lifeless 3-0 loss or anything worse on the scoreline, and there may be a vacancy in south-west London on Monday.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: LIVERPOOL 3, Fulham 0.
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