By Georgina Turner
April 30, 2010

If Liverpool had played its entire season at home, it'd be in fourth right now, cosily certain of Champions League football after the summer and in absolutely no danger of finishing below noisy neighbors Everton. The team has taken an impressive 28 of the last 30 available league points at Anfield.

No wonder its fans look so miserable.

Because Chelsea's in town on Sunday, and if Carlo Ancelotti's men don't win, Manchester United -- visiting Sunderland later that day -- has a chance to notch a 19th top-flight title, surpassing Liverpool's proud record of 18. Thursday's Europa League elimination to Atletico Madrid will give Anfield's faithful hope of witnessing another humbling, but then, they'd quite like to see their team make a last-ditch break for fourth. What a pickle.

Certainly defeat would be the easier accomplishment after that sapping extra-time encounter with Atletico, which was enough to force manager Rafael Benitez to call for cash to bring in "three, four or five players" in the summer. Dirk Kuyt had been in doubt for Thursday's match but somehow made it through the two hours, as did Ryan Babel, while David Ngog wasn't fit enough to come off the bench; Liverpool's front line looks shot before Chelsea even boards the bus. They'll need lively support from Alberto Aquilani, whose influence from the hole in recent weeks makes him a sensible, if not a certain, starter there on Sunday.

That would push Steven Gerrard back alongside Javier Mascherano or Lucas Leiva, potentially limiting his chances to surge through the Chelsea midfield, even if Michael Ballack starts in place of the quicker (yet injured) John Obi Mikel. But this is exactly the kind of match Gerrard gets up for. The Liverpool captain can spot glory like a storm chaser sensing an eddying breeze; what finer moment than dragging your exhausted, ramshackle troupe to victory -- to fourth, perhaps -- despite the opening it affords your greatest rivals?

"The idea is to take maximum points and see if we can get into the Champions League through the back door," Gerrard said this week. "We won't give up."

Anfield hasn't been the most bountiful hunting ground for Chelsea in the moneyed era, but the frustrations it endured there under Jose Mourinho came when its form against the top four was patchy. This year Chelsea has a perfect record against United, Arsenal and Liverpool, and last season's 3-1 Champions League victory against Liverpool at Anfield is relatively fresh in the memory.

Then, Liverpool was vulnerable on set pieces, completely unable to cope with the vigor and intensity of a front three determined to give defender Jamie Carragher a nervous breakdown. If Ancelotti starts Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Salomon Kalou up front as he did in last week's 7-0 crushing of Stoke City, with Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda providing able and inventive support, Carragher will cast an eye at his makeshift defensive colleagues and stifle a howl.

When Liverpool beat leader Blackburn on the last day of the 1994-95 season, United failed to win its match against West Ham and had to make do with second; how Anfield would love to see something similar happen this time. Pride, if nothing else, will stop Liverpool from being overwhelmed as Stoke was. And despite his and Lampard's protestations to the contrary, John "I'm totally fine with my form" Terry is susceptible to the odd fleet-footed flash, if Liverpool can find the legs. But you have to fancy Chelsea to have enough of an edge to pull four points clear and put even more pressure on United at a packed and expectant Stadium of Light.

"We seriously believe we can win," Sunderland manager Steve Bruce has assured his team's fans. "And we really want to win. Am I going to tell the players, 'Please don't show up, just let them win, will you?' It is not going to happen."

The Mackams want to hold onto 10th, and have the scalps of Spurs and Arsenal to prove it -- not to mention a draw at Old Trafford last October that would have been a victory but for a cruel late deflection off Anton Ferdinand to make it 2-2. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, though, has Anton's brother, Rio, and Wayne Rooney back in his ranks for the season's final battles. Like Chelsea, United travels as favorites, if by a more slender margin.

Now, common sense dictates that I dedicate the rest of this column to the fight for fourth, which heats up Saturday with the meeting between Manchester City and Aston Villa. But I won't. The key game there isn't until next Wednesday, when City play host to Spurs, and besides, how can I possibly ignore Fulham's heroic Europa League win Thursday? That's right, I can't.

"We made a major piece of history here," manager Roy Hodgson said after his Fulham side had come back from an away goal down to defeat Hamburg 2-1 and advance to the final. "The atmosphere is something we will remember for a long time. You go through a roller coaster out there but I cannot be more delighted than I am with the performance."

Under Hodgson, Fulham has become everybody's second-favorite team, anathema to the instant packet-mix success of the Premier League's richest clubs with his softly, softly, catchee monkey approach. He's no stranger to spending money -- the $16 million he forked out for the injured Andy Johnson stands out in his record, especially given the success this season of Bobby Zamora, cheap at half the price.

But Zoltan Gera, who scored the winner against Hamburg with 14 minutes left, and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, who kept Fulham in it in the first leg, both arrived on a free transfer in Hodgson's first summer there. Midfielder Damien Duff followed last summer for a nominal fee. Without anything like galactico signings -- Hodgson himself arrived after years drifting from one short-lived job to another -- Fulham has gone from perennial flirtations with relegation to a deserved Europa League final against Atletico on May 12.

"We are in the final for no other reason than we have played very well in some difficult games," Hodgson told reporters "It's been a wonderful journey and it's an achievement as a coach I am very proud of."

He's been gathering the support of impressed neutrals along the way, and if the cheer that went up around Anfield when news from Craven Cottage filtered through is anything to go by, he'll take Fulham to Hamburg as armchair favorites, if not the bookies'.

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