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Looking ahead to our season-defining semi-final

Written by Alex Mackenzie on 22nd January 2024

© Dara Curran

Alex Mackenzie delves into a night that, for better or worse, will define the 2023/24 season.

Fulham remain in the tie. There’s only one goal in it. It might seem like a negative to go into the second leg with a deficit, but Fulham should remain confident that they can at the very least be competitive at the Cottage. It will not be straightforward; there’s a small mountain to climb, which could very easily become a bigger mountain. But then again, when did Fulham ever do things the easy way? Fulham will need to try and stay composed at home, one goal could mean a fightback of Juventus magnitude is needed to get to Wembley. And lightning doesn’t always strike twice.

Second leg composure

All being well Fulham won’t need to harness the spirits that were at work that night against the Old Lady to complete an underdog’s victory. Fulham showed at Anfield earlier this season and in the first leg that they are more than capable of putting Liverpool to the sword. A bit more defensive steel will be needed to actually win though.

The challenge will be exposing the weaknesses in Liverpool’s backline and keeping the ball in the final third. When Fulham got forward, they rarely sustained an attack in the first leg. Trying to ensure that the regaining possession times are kept at a low level will be vital to taking the game to Liverpool. Overall possession was 33%; that will have to improve for if Fulham are going to expose a backline that won’t really want to defend. Fulham came out firing the last time we went into the second leg of a tie at the Cottage, against Derby in 2018, and the same level of composure on the ball will be needed once more.

Areas to exploit

Right-footed Joe Gomez playing at left-back and inexperienced Conor Bradley (without Anfield behind him) at right-back should be a target area as Fulham could aim to use width to sustain possession. If Fulham remain only a goal behind, Liverpool will at some stage drop deeper to retain the lead. This should work to Fulham’s advantage. The deeper Liverpool drop, their attack as defence tactic will no longer be operable. They will be a threat on the counter, but Fulham will get the chance to genuinely test the defence.

Big decisions

With Fulham needing to win the game, Tom Cairney will need to be deployed, either from the bench or from the start. Harrison Reed was brilliant in the first leg in what was a tightly-contested midfield, where I would argue Fulham just edged the battle. If Reed starts again alongside Joao, then Marco will have opted to keep it tight and get to half time still in with a shout of Wembley. Arguably more conservative in approach, but there is the potential for extra time after all.

Raul will be the main option upfront, but will Fulham aim to play Harry Wilson against his former club from the start? Surely Fulham want many minutes of Wilson cutting in and running at Joe Gomez to combat Liverpool’s left flank? Joe Gomez is right-footed; this can only mean that Harry has the beating of Gomez on the outside. But then again, Bobby De Cordova-Reid’s record against Liverpool is rather good and he’s the club’s joint-top scorer. Plus, Trent Alexander-Arnold could be fit again.

All these decisions will be weighing on Marco’s mind going into the second leg, but one big source of encouragement he will take from the first is that for 65 minutes, Fulham defended a lead at Anfield. If it weren’t for a big deflection off Tosin, then Fulham could well have had the advantage to take back to SW6. The back four will most likely be unchanged, but Tosin himself will have to be more alert and accurate with his passing. Any mistake will surely be seen by Liverpool as an opportunity to kill the tie altogether. If we’re passing out from the back, then knowing when to knock it into the channel and pass through the press will be important. Very rare that so early on in a season, a season can be defined by these decisions.

Potential ramifications

The final consideration Fulham should bear in mind between now and the second leg is that the transfer window will be ending. If Fulham have not already added to the squad to bolster their options, then failure to progress will mean that certain players will not be as excited to join Fulham before the window ends. The chance to play at Wembley will be a big pull for players to come to Fulham. The other side of that is, of course, the lure of the exit door if the players do not progress. Several players are in the midst of assessing their options, and if Fulham don’t make Wembley, then with a few days of the window remaining the last-minute deals look all the more likely to this time be finalised.

The season has been full of ups and down’s both on and off the pitch, but this feels like the major highlight of Fulham’s season. The league form is strong enough, and relegation looks to be very avoidable, but the performances have dried up ever so slightly with one eye on a very glamorous cup run. I would argue that right now Fulham can make the season an overwhelming success if they can get to Wembley and continue to stay competitive in the league. Staying in the league will be some achievement, but the squad is ageing and for players to stay interested this season, something to look forward to in the form of silverware will keep those players excited not mediocre. No pressure then.

All in all, though, the game ought to be a top occasion, a night for Fulham to stamp their mark on a competition they are yet to have an affiliated history with. The European competition will always have a Fulham story, as will the FA Cup (when Fulham had an equally notable number six in Bobby Moore), the League Cup could be the completion of a trio. It would be a testament to this team. An achievement they can be very proud of, over the last two seasons Fulham have put in top performances against all counterparts. If they can beat Liverpool and progress, then the final is a chance for this team to go down in history as one of the best teams, if not the best team, Fulham has ever produced in the modern era. They would be remembered by the Fulham faithful forever.

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