Once Brendan Rodgers was tempted into vocally targeting the top two in the Premier League last Friday, there was an air of inevitability to defeat to Aston Villa. Pride and indeed hubris come before a fall. His post-match comments may have been of bemusement at a capitulation after a decent start, and spoken of others talking up his team, but Anfield was treated to a state of the nation performance. There were still positive signs of continuing progress but the end result was disappointing. Sometimes, a developing team can throw up a mystery match. Rodgers must hope that is what happened last week.
The Villa defeat suggested, if not confirmed, that Liverpool's pipe dreams of the top four are unlikely to be fulfilled. Instead, this was a showing to confirm Rodgers' post-Chelsea statement that any improvement on last season's 8th placing would mark out a season of achievement for Liverpool. Since that Sunday afternoon in mid-November at Stamford Bridge, Rodgers is correct in suggesting his team have been on an upward curve. Only a rather unlucky defeat at Tottenham was a blot on an unblemished copybook until Villa. A victory against Fulham is now required to restore confidence, to distil what has been a good news week for Liverpool Football Club and its followers.
The Attorney General's ruling means that justice draws nearer for the Hillsborough movement, which on Sunday is likely to be celebrating a number one UK single too. In footballing terms rendered into unimportance by the first of those, Raheem Sterling is to sign a new deal after a worryingly protracted impasse. And there are signs that the transfer wrongs of August will be righted in the early days of January. Daniel Sturridge is due for arrival, Thomas Ince is set to return. Neither have the look of the type of signings that can transform a club from also-ran to contender but they swell a small squad, or "group", as Rodgers would have it.
Those signings are designed to take some of the heavy burden away from Sterling and Luis Suarez. The latter gave a performance against Villa that was out of character in its anonymity. Sterling's teenage legs have looked heavy in recent weeks. Until 2013 arrives, both will be expected to play their parts in Liverpool's four matches over the Christmas period.
They come up against a Fulham side who delivered two contrasting performances last week. Newcastle United's weaknesses were exposed at Craven Cottage, before a return to former temporary home Loftus Road saw the Cottagers become QPR's first victims of the season. A late surge that included Mladen Petric's goal was not nearly enough.
Fulham had been just as poor and disjointed as QPR in the first half. In the second, they were second to every ball. Martin Jol exuded quiet rage in the press room afterwards, with only Dimitar Berbatov escaping his disappointment. "He cannot do it on his own," Jol said. By contrast, the Newcastle performance saw the Bulgarian's colleagues respond well to his pulling of the strings.
Liverpool are a team who think they should be doing better, while Fulham are not doing as well as many people probably believe they are. Jol's side are two points and one position behind Rodgers' 12th-placed team. The Newcastle victory was their first since October, and Jol enters Christmas needing victories before New Year arrives, or else the Cottagers will find themselves flirting with the relegation zone. His team's most notable performances in recent weeks have been draws – at home to Everton and away at Arsenal.
Rodgers' problem is that his team's victories have yet to arrive in a fixture against the type of club Liverpool were once of equal standing to; he is yet to defeat a top-six team in almost half a season in charge. Fulham's league position suggests they are similar calibre to previous victims Reading, Wigan, Southampton and West Ham. Rodgers should not be getting ahead of himself again if his team win on Saturday evening.
Liverpool player to watch: Steven Gerrard - There are Anfield veterans who date back to the days of Billy Liddell who will tell you that Gerrard is Liverpool's finest ever player. He has delivered a body of work to confirm that status. This season, however, has seen something of a dimming of the light. He remains influential only fitfully. Two injury-ravaged recent years have led many to believe that he does not possess the athleticism required by the Rodgers system, and that a flank or withdrawn forward role may be better suited. However, he is still just 32, and many of his contemporaries remain at their peak. Rodgers is yet to find a way to get the best from him.
Fulham player to watch: Dimitar Berbatov - An injury to Bryan Ruiz has granted the Bulgarian the role he says he has always wanted to play. Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United treated him as a 'No. 9', but 'No. 10' is where Berbatov declared he wanted to play in his club's programme ahead of the Newcastle match. Hugo Rodallega is now the line-leader to allow Berbatov to drop in where the mood takes him, and that has sometimes been in the heart of midfield. There, he gets even more gossamer touches of the ball, and can spread the play before ambling into scoring positions.
Key battle: Glen Johnson v John Arne Riise - Of Liverpool's players, Johnson has perhaps responded best of all to Brendan Rodgers, serving him well as an emergency left-back with notable defensive discipline, but when restored to his normal flank also showing off admirable attacking qualities. Riise, a player whose star descended troublingly in the later section of his time at Liverpool, is still a full-back who likes to overlap and have an effort on goal. The Norwegian has bulked up considerably since the days when he celebrated a Liverpool goal by showing off a scrawny physique and his battle with Johnson is likely to be one where physical strength is key.
Trivia: Fulham have only won once at Liverpool in 11 Premier League visits, but that victory came only in May this year in a 1-0 win that twinned their earlier victory at Craven Cottage.
Stats: Of the 24 goalkeepers to have made at least 20 saves in the Premier League this season, Pepe Reina has the lowest shots to save ratio (59.6%). [Opta]
Odds: Fulham are 6.50 at bet365 for an away win and a draw is 4.00. A home win is 1.53.
Prediction: Liverpool to cut off Berbatov's supply lines, pull themselves five clear of Fulham and re-energise Brendan's optimism.