This challenging on two fronts lark is alright, isn’t it?
Being in the thick of the title race and the quarter-finals of the European Cup has a proper retro vibe and not since 1984 have Liverpool been in as strong a position to carry off the two biggest prizes.
Winning in Munich in such an emphatic manner has shifted mindsets. Talk of preferences, predominantly league over Europe, has taken a back seat. Treating the Champions League as a secondary objective felt out of kilter with Liverpool fan’s traditional mentality; a sacrilegious departure from the very thing that has sustained us during the barren domestic years. Watching Sadio Mane send the Bayern defence and half of Bavaria for the Echo only whets the appetite for a passage to Madrid.
Now though it’s back to grindstone. Fulham away has none of the glamour to match the scarlet glow of the Allianz Arena. Craven Cottage couldn’t be further removed, a rickety old ground on the banks of the Thames filled with a strangely eccentric support which could easily pass for a rugby crowd sated by smoked salmon and champers. Think of Fulham and you struggle to conjure a signature image, bar Mohamed Al-Fayed’s bizarre “Jacko” statue (thankfully removed) and a brief George Best renaissance in the late 1970s.
The Cottage however has twice been the scene of joyous Liverpool celebrations during our last two title challenges. Yossi Benayoun’s last minute winner in 2009 convinced everyone that a creaking Manchester United were in our sights – until that heinous Macheda moment the next day. Similarly, in 2014 when Steven Gerrard was swirling his top in front of us after a late penalty, it suddenly dawned that the skipper believed we could prevail. The less said the better about how that one ultimately turned out but hope springs eternal and the same burning ambition travels to West London again five years on.
The victory in Germany was the perfect way to banish thoughts of three consecutive away draws in the Premier League. Any further slip ups on the road would put paid to realistic title ambitions and Fulham on Sunday represents the easiest of Liverpool’s remaining away fixtures. Southampton, Cardiff and Newcastle all still have relegation concerns but the Cottagers have no such motivation.
Having spent in excess of £100m after last season’s promotion, Fulham have made a pig’s ear of this campaign and are marooned thirteen points from safety. When they lost 2-0 at Anfield in November, Slavisa Jokanovic was in the death throes of his spell at the club soon to be replaced by Claudio Ranieri. The Italian manifestly failed to summon any of the magic that he brought to Leicester and was sent packing last month with Scott Parker enlisted as a caretaker manager for the rest of the season.
With Fulham so adrift, Liverpool shouldn’t be too fearful of any new manager “bounce” and if Jurgen Klopp has a job to do it is to guard against complacency. Liverpool’s incentive is that three points, while Manchester City are otherwise engaged in the FA Cup, put them back on top of the table before the international break. City might still enjoy a marginal advantage but their cup commitments and an inevitably feisty Champions League double header against Spurs give Liverpool cause for hope that league points could go begging in April.
Whatever side Jurgen Klopp chooses should be good enough to do the job at Craven Cottage. Jordan Henderson’s ankle injury is inopportune but offers Adam Lallana the chance to build on his performance against Burnley. Naby Keita’s frustrations continue, the muscle strain that kept him out in midweek likely to side-line him again, leaving Gini Wijnaldum, James Milner and Fabinho as Klopp’s remaining midfield options. Regardless of the opposition it would still be a major surprise if Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah didn’t all start up front.
After Wednesday, belief is coursing through Liverpool veins. It would be a travesty if this remarkable season went unrewarded. Technically, the Reds still need a favour in the title race but let’s not look at it like that and instead assume that eight wins from here does the trick. Fulham is the first step on that road. Porto (and probably Barca) await in Europe and dare we contemplate Manchester City in Madrid to scale those twin peaks?
*Odds are subject to change