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Liverpool, Fulham on different courses
Liverpool kept pressure on Arsenal atop the Premier League with a comprehensive 4-0 victory over a deeply troubled Fulham, in a showcase of the profound differences in these two American-owned clubs. The former have turned the corner and look like reclaiming their place on the world stage. The latter will be lucky to stay in England’s top-flight.
This was a match that was over within 25 minutes. An own goal from Fernando Amorebieta in the 23rd minute was followed by a header from Martin Skrtel just moments later. Suarez would nick a goal with ten to play in the first half and would get his second after Kieran Richardson gifted him a free run on goal ten minutes after the restart. It was a display that had Fulham out on their feet.
Saturday’s result -- and a series of dismal performances that have seen Fulham losing five of their last seven league games -- will have new owner Shahid Khan looking at Liverpool with envy. While Khan’s Cottagers have designs on exploiting their London base -- and the reflected glamor of the capital -- they face the sort of overhaul John Henry and his American partners oversaw on Merseyside.
When Henry’s Fenway Sports Group bought Liverpool, the Reds were a team on the brink. Years of mismanagement and infighting between former owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks left the proud Reds with a near $500 million debt, and their bankers forced through a sale to the owners of the Boston Red Sox. Liverpool had a legendary stadium, a world-famous brand -- but had slipped badly on the field. Neither Roy Hodgson nor club legend Kenny Dalglish were able to arrest the decline. Two high-profile scandals involving Luis Suarez cast a pall over the club, and for a time, it seemed their young new manager, Brendan Rodgers, was well out of his depth.
Fast forward to now, and Liverpool looks like a team that, with a piece or two more, could genuinely contend for the league title. Suarez has formed a brilliant partnership with Daniel Sturridge that sees the so-called “SAS” duo sitting 1-2 in the Golden Boot race. Keeper Simon Mignolet has stiffened a previously leaky defense, able to make both the routine save and the fantastic. And while there are still questions about Liverpool’s midfield – exposed by Arsenal last week at the Emirates in a 2-0 loss – the Reds look like a top-four side in this year’s very open race. Rodgers’ plan – to play a more attractive game and win at the same time, has worked.
Contrast that with the mess Khan has just bought. Fulham are sluggish and sloppy. His star player, Dimitar Berbatov, has scored just once in league play this season and looks as if he would rather be anywhere else. The question in press row was whether Khan would sack manager Martin Jol at the half or wait until they got on the bus ride home. It was only half a joke. And after a display that saw Fulham cough the ball up repeatedly, fail to press and concede four goals, one wondered if Jol’s team was trying to force the issue.
Martin Jol's future at Craven Cottage could be in serious doubt after Saturday's result (Photo: John Powell/Getty Images).
Either way, change will be coming to Craven Cottage after a series of insipid displays that have left this side on the edge of the drop zone heading into the break. (Were it not for the abject nature of teams like Crystal Palace and Sunderland, Fulham surely would be in far worse trouble.) But Khan is limited in what he can do.
Craven Cottage is a beautiful old stadium, with an emphasis on the word “old.” As a protected building of historic interest, Khan is unable to do more than quibble around the margins. Liverpool’s Anfield holds 45,000 and is considered too small for the modern game. (In fact, a longstanding expansion project is underway here, and eventually will bring capacity to 60,000.) Craven Cottage holds a paltry 25,000, and is limited by its proximity to the Thames and its listed buildings in how many more it can stuff in. That means despite a fantastically wealthy TV contract, Fulham are unable to maximize their revenues at the gate.
The Riverside project would give Fulham another 5,000 seats, but there are whispers Fulham are looking to increase even further, which would mean some sacrifice. Even so, they would be far below the capacity of their neighbors Chelsea, which is considered small at nearly 42,000. And Spurs, to their North and East, are aiming an ambitious overhaul of White Hart Lane that may one day hold an NFL team, of the type Mr. Khan already owns.
In the here and now, more seats at the Cottage will matter little if Fulham cannot arrest this season’s alarming slide. Saturday’s result left them 16th ahead of the weekend’s remaining matches, and wins for Norwich and Stoke would put the Londoners into the drop zone. While there’s a long way yet to go, the signs for Fulham are ominous.
Can Khan be the latest American owner to work some magic in England? Only time will tell. But Stan Kroenke’s Arsenal and John Henry and Co.’s Liverpool have set the bar very high. Khan and Fulham are left playing catch-up, and the new owner now has a series of difficult decisions ahead this week.
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