A late Danny Murphy penalty saw Liverpool sneak past Fulham at Loftus Road as Chris Coleman’s side missed the chance to climb into the top four. Gerard Houllier’s decision to turn to Florent Sinama-Pongolle dramatically tipped a tight game in the visitors’ favour, with the Frenchman coming off the bench to earn the decisive spot kick.
England international Emile Heskey put the Merseysiders ahead with his third goal in two matches but the lively Louis Saha brought Fulham level right at the end of the first half. In a gripping finale, the game moved from end to end but Sinama-Pongolle drew a foul from Zat Knight in the closing stages and then was flattened by a crude challenge from Luis Boa Morte, which saw the Portuguese winger dismissed, and end any chance of a Fulham fightback.
This was a game of fine margins and Fulham’s overall display matched the composed performance that had recently wrestled three points from Manchester United at Old Trafford. The home side gradually grew into the contest after matching Liverpool’s early intensity but they rode their luck to begin with as Heskey only just failed to connect with a dangerous pass from Vladimir Smicer.
Liverpool continued to probe patiently in front of the Fulham defence with the pace of Michael Owen a persistent problem. There was some irony in that the breakthrough was supplied from the right flank by former Fulham full back Steve Finnan, who moved to Anfield last summer. The Republic of Ireland international’s cross was smartly volleyed beyond Mark Crossley by Heskey, whose impressive movement was too much for Andy Melville.
Heskey should have perhaps put Liverpool further in front just after the hour mark but he miscued a shot from close range after Smicer had been denied by Crossley. Fulham’s approach was a bit more primitive once they discovered that Houllier’s defence were vulnerable against a route one approach. Saha twice nearly punished the visitors by springing the offside trap only to find Jerzy Dudek alert to the danger, even if he nearly slipped when coming to field a through ball on one occasion.
Saha also spurned a good opportunity when he wriggled free of his marker at a corner but headed disappointingly wide. The Frenchman got his reward five minutes before the break when he guided an assured finish past Dudek after a slick Fulham more down the right. Moritz Volz galloped deep into Liverpool territory to link up with Steed Malbranque on the edge of the box and the French midfielder’s cross bounced off Steven Gerrard into the path of Saha, who gladly accepted the gift.
Seconds later, Saha went close to giving Fulham the lead in first half stoppage time with Dudek turning his instinctive effort onto the frame of the goal. The Polish goalkeeper then made a far better save right at the start of the second period – diving one-handed to claw away Saha’s powerful drive. At the other end, Crossley was also at full stretch to repel Smicer’s smart chip but chances were few and far between in a tight second half until Sinama-Pongolle stepped off the bench.
The substitute successfully stretched the game and, after sauntering into the Fulham box, tempted Knight into a tackle as he touched the ball past the centre half. Rob Styles had no hesitation into pointing to the spot and Murphy, who had only been shown a yellow earlier for a terrible tackle on Malbranque, coolly converted the spot kick. Boa Morte’s late rush of blood to head was a sour note on which another encouraging Fulham performance had to end.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Crossley; Volz, Bonnissel, Melville, Knight; Pembridge (Djetou 21), Legwinski, Clark; Malbranque, Boa Morte, Saha (Hayles 86). Subs (not used): Beasant, Sean Davis, Buari.
BOOKED: Boa Morte.
SENT OFF: Boa Morte.
GOAL: Saha (40).
LIVERPOOL (4-4-2) Dudek; Finnan, Hyypia, Biscan (Henchoz 66), Traore; Smicer, Murphy, Gerrard, Kewell; Heskey (Le Tallec 82), Owen (Sinama Pongolle 77). Subs (not used): Kirkland, Hamann.
GOALS: Heskey (17), Murphy (pen 89).
REFEREE: Rob Styles (Hampshire).