Fun at Fulham could help May malaise

Posted by Kristian Walsh

Looks are more deceiving in football than most other things in life.

Take Craven Cottage, home of Fulham. Though the walk along the Thames is pleasant and the stadium, fraying by the game, appears quaint and inoffensive, it can become anything but. Beneath the solemn, modest exterior is home of some of the wildest parties -- away support, intoxicated with pride and alcohol, is always that little bit louder, that bit more vibrant on the banks of the river.

Most games at the Cottage, irrespective of the visiting team or the magnitude of the fixture, will be played to the backdrop of quasi-melodic glee.

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That is not to insinuate their side are welcoming at home; history dictates they are anything but. With an away record as traditionally poor as theirs, home wins have been the catalyst to staying in the Premier League.

Yet Fulham is fun, a throwback to a time more innocent with people who have more perspective and less hysteria than most. The last time Liverpool visited Craven Cottage toward the season's end, in 2011, Liverpool won 5-2.

It was a game played with abandon, an end-to-end slobber knocker seemingly designed solely to titivate the Monday night audience. A place in the Europa League was still a possibility for Liverpool, but few cared; it had long been waved away after a poor start to the season, recompensed by bumbling owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett being waved away along with it.

The mood among the away fans was jubilant that May evening, if not slightly maniacal. Kenny Dalglish had returned to the dugout to get his 10th league win in 17 games since replacing Roy Hodgson. Maxi Rodriguez scored a hat trick, Dirk Kuyt was regaining form and confidence, and Luis Suarez was beginning to settle into the English game by unsettling all those who had yet to learn of his wonder. Liverpool were passing, moving, scoring at will.

A club legend back in charge with a fancy for free-flowing football coupled with the intimation of new owners Fenway Sports Group bringing opulence to the summer transfer window. Somebody pinch them.

Sadly, somebody did. The 2011-12 season acted as one long pinch, in fact, a perpetual dig to the senses, the gruesome reality that their year had been and gone once more. No amount of heel clicking would take them back to that night at Craven Cottage; not even the Carling Cup, coupled with an FA Cup final appearance, could recapture that feeling of Fulham from months before.

This is not to revisit a debate that has long been covered. There is no point reopening an argument that should have been welded shut a long time ago. Dalglish is gone, for better or worse. This is more of what is to come, not what has been.

Liverpool travel to west London on Sunday with a feeling not too removed from two years ago. Some things change, as they always do in football. There is no Dalglish and no Suarez -- for now. But that's where the disparity ends.

Like 2011, there is nothing to really play for. Yet still there is something -- no matter how slight, how red-tinted -- to look forward to for Liverpool. There is Philippe Coutinho, his scuttling runs becoming an afternoon highlight at Anfield. Daniel Sturridge is still raw but capable of moments magical as much as fleeting, while Jose Enrique, in all his head-scratching, face-melting capriciousness, can be fun to watch as he assaults the left-hand side.

Liverpool play best when pressure is a far-flung concept. That has been evident most of the season and was illustrated best against Everton. The week before, they produced the footballing equivalent of a custard pie to the face, embarrassing Newcastle 6-0 and having fun doing so. Fast-forward to the Merseyside derby, which was a far more po-faced affair. Granted, Everton pressed Liverpool and defended well, but Everton were also a team with importance attached to them.

Though Fulham aren't mathematically safe -- nor is the sun mathematically guaranteed to rise in the morning -- they, like Liverpool, could play with the abandon of two years ago.

There is a debate habitually held at this point in the season for teams with little to play for. This, apparently, should be the occasion to play some of those showing promise in the Academy or to give those on the fringes a final chance to impress. These games should be glorified preseason friendlies, a chance to try something different.

With both Steven Gerrard and Daniel Agger out, the temptation is obvious for Brendan Rodgers. Andre Wisdom could play at centre-back, while Jonjo Shelvey could be given a chance to impress in the captain's absence. Names such as Conor Coady may even register on the radar.

But sixth place is not yet lost, and as ultimately unimportant as it may be, every position and point strengthens Rodgers' position in the summer. The correlation between points and proactivity in the boardroom will be stark. This could be a performance of the ilk of Newcastle, Wigan and QPR, where Rodgers sees his team link up well, rotate, move, score. It is Fulham, after all.

Deep down, however, Rodgers knows this is not the dilemma Liverpool should have, which crystallises the task he has at Anfield. The dilemma should not be whether to finish the season with Wisdom or Martin Skrtel, Coady or Shelvey; the dilemma should come in how to battle for Champions League football and remain in contention for the cup competitions come May.

This is not Rodgers' fault, for he is merely a year into his efforts of reversing this May malaise.

May was the time of trophies for the Reds, summer the season of success and silverware. It has not been so for a while -- not since 2009, when Liverpool finished just four points behind Manchester United. It was at Craven Cottage a month earlier that the stadium was at its most fun for Liverpool when Yossi Benayoun struck in stoppage time. Liverpool were top of the league, on the cusp of their 19th title and a glittering future.

Looks can be deceiving. When Rodgers walks across the Fulham pitch to the dugout in the penultimate game of his maiden season as Liverpool, that should be the loudest message of all. It does not matter who he picks, how he wins or if, indeed, victory comes at all. What matters is that it doesn't matter.

That is something he must reverse over time. That is what his time as Liverpool will be defined by. Craven Cottage can be fun -- just ask Dalglish -- but it is far more fun when winning means something.

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