When you have a player of the quality of Fernando Torres on the bench, he can often be the difference between success and failure. And so it proved at Liverpool tonight. Fulham, seeking to restrict their more illustratious hosts for much of the evening, played the containing game superbly and frustrated the Anfield crowd until the Spaniard strode forward from the substitutes bench and changed the game. He struck a fine solo goal after his late arrival to edge Liverpool in front and Rafa Benitez’s side were home and dry after Steven Gerrard dispatched a penalty shortly afterwards.
Fulham would have counted themselves slightly unfortunate not to be leaving Merseyside with a point for their trouble after withstanding a ferocious Liverpool onslaught for such a long time. Rafa Benitez stuck with the side that thrashed Besiktas 8-0 in the Champions’ League – the first time in over a year that he had named an unchanged team – but Fulham proved far less generous guests than the Turks. Well organised and with the hard working but limited Shefi Kuqi a surprising started, Fulham were full of honest endeavour and Liverpool struggled to create too many chances.
Indeed, it was Fulham who look the more threatening in the early stages. Danny Murphy, on his return to Anfield with the Cottagers, came close with a couple of shots from distance and Kuqi’s aerial ability caused some unsettling moments in the home defence. By contrast, Antti Niemi was only forced to work once, easily holding a Sami Hyypia shot, although he was beaten by a Peter Crouch header that looped over him and cracked against the crossbar on the stroke of half time.
Niemi kept Fulham in the contest as they tired in the second period. Andriy Voronin flitted in and out of the game for the most part and he underlined his enigmatic nature when he chose the wrong option, when he misplaced a pass having been completely unmarked at the back post. His tame shot from a Crouch knockdown was easily claimed by Niemi, who had a bit more difficulty with a clever free-kick from Fabio Aurelio, eventually smothering the ball.
The visitors were starting to sit deeper almost inviting Liverpool on and that looked to be very dangerous indeed. Voronin saw a rising shot palmed away by Niemi and, just as he was becoming particularly influential, the pony-tailed forward blotted his copybook again by missing a crucial kick in front of goal as the Fulham defence parted. With the back four stretched, Yossi Beyanoun skipped into the penalty and looked certain to chip Niemi only for the Finnish goalkeeper to produced a splendid save and push the ball away for the corner. Benayoun was heavily involved in Liverpool’s next chance – supplying a splendid through pass for Voronin – but he managed to screw his shot wide.
Benitez then decided to throw on Torres, perhaps aware of Fulham’s vulnerability to pressure in the latter stages of games. Time and time again this season, Sanchez’s side have squandered a promising position in the last ten minutes, and so it proved again. There was little they could do about the stunning Torres strike that nudged Liverpool in front. He effortlessly brought down a massive kick from Pepe Reina, turned threateningly and went inside and outside of Aaron Hughes, before rolling a measured shot inside Niemi’s near post. It needed something special to beat the Fulham keeper – and this was it.
The contest was over just four minutes later when Carlos Bocanegra’s clumsy trip on Peter Crouch allowed Gerrard to stretch Liverpool’s lead from the penalty spot. It was harsh on poor old Fulham.
LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Aurelio, Carragher, Hyypia; Mascherano (Lucas 81), Gerrard, Benayoun, Riise (Babel 62); Crouch, Voronin (Torres 70). Subs (not used): Martin, Finnan.
GOALS: Torres (81), Gerrard (pen 85).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Niemi; Baird, Bocanegra, Hughes, Stefanovic; Davis, Murphy, Davies, Dempsey (Kamara 69); Kuqi, Healy (Bouazza 60). Subs (not used): Warner, Leijer, Smertin.
BOOKED: Murphy, Dempsey.
REFEREE: Steve Tanner (Somerset).