By David Lynch at Anfield
Though Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish will not have expected a fluent performance from his second string against Fulham on Tuesday, his disappointment at the limp 1-0 loss he witnessed was tangible.
“If you go in with a bad attitude you’re going to get bad performances and that’s what we got,” the Scot told reporters following the defeat. Yet, whilst the Reds’ attitude was evidently poor against a Fulham side who had conceded four in their last game, the dearth of quality could perhaps excuse it.
That is, if Dalglish had not made it quite clear, that for many this was an opportunity to stake a claim for an FA Cup final berth.
The 61-year-old has no choice; his squad size dictates that at least three of those who featured in the defeat must start again at Wembley on Saturday. However, his demeanour following the result made clear how let down he felt and suggested it is a problem he wished he did not have.
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The Reds have had to cope with a selection dilemma in midfield for much of the season thanks to Lucas Leiva’s long-term absence and latterly Charlie Adam’s injury woes. Yet the loss to the west Londoners ensured that, ahead of Saturday's clash with Chelsea, arguably only Steven Gerrard is certain to take a place in that most crucial of battlegrounds.
He could be partnered by Jordan Henderson, who showed plenty of energy but little creative nous before being taken off at half-time - a move which seemingly guarantees his presence against the Blues, despite his less-than authoritative game.
Next to him, Jonjo Shelvey looked ready to build on a showing of real promise against Norwich by being one of the few players attempting to make things happen. His efforts, particularly in tandem with Andy Carroll, were commendable but tailed off into some frustrating miscues in the second half.
However, if Jay Spearing was one of those players whom Dalglish had hoped to be convinced by against Fulham, the Wirral-born midfielder came up badly short.
His misplaced passes, ill-advised lunges and questionable positioning against a Cottagers midfield full of ability and nous in the form of Moussa Dembele and Danny Murphy argued strongly against his inclusion on Saturday.
Whether Spearing would have played as big a part this season had Lucas avoided injury does not require much thought, yet the stark contrast in the control the men can exert has become startling.
Indeed, it is not just in the middle of the park where Dalglish faces selection issues prior to the FA Cup showpiece - the make-up of his attack is by no means a certainty.
Dirk Kuyt looked every bit the spent force he has for much of this season; losing the ball with now trademark regularity and looking as though he has entirely lost that knack of scoring crucial goals - something which will at least ensure he is held in high regard should he leave in the summer.
Stewart Downing has started in both of Liverpool’s Wembley appearances this season and has acquitted himself well on the famous green expanse. Yet here – in a substitute role which suggests he is also guaranteed a place against Chelsea - he proved why he has been part of the Reds’ attacking problem rather than its solution this season.
Deployed on the right initially, the former Aston Villa man allowed John Arne Riise to comfortably shepherd him onto his weaker foot with which he provided a stream of inconsequential crosses. He can possibly count himself lucky that there is currently little competition for his place, and that his role, rather than quality, may just certify his inclusion.
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Finally, Andy Carroll, who missed the game against the Canaries due to a groin strain, played a 90 minutes which could see him muscle his way into contention. His aerial threat remained as impressive as ever, though he was mostly unaided by a midfield reluctant to get close to him. Whilst he has yet to prove he is a consistent goal threat - and is extremely unlikely to change that against Roberto Di Matteo’s side - the chaos he causes in the box is an important weapon.
In fact, considering the Geordie forward's performance and the toothless nature of the Reds' central midfield, Dalglish may have witnessed his players force his hand on more than just the personnel he selects.
A systemic shuffle to ensure that two strikers are incorporated at the expense of a man in the middle may be the only way to allow all of his in-form players to feature.
Dalglish could have been forgiven for assigning little importance to the clash with the Cottagers ahead of Tuesday but now, prior to the biggest game of the season, he has still been left with more questions than answers.
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