Fulham’s feint hopes of Premier League survival were all but extinguished after goals from Jermaine Pennant and Peter Crouch secured a routine win for Liverpool at Craven Cottage this afternoon.
Rafa Benitez sent out a second string side for the second season in succession at Craven Cottage – but Roy Hodgson’s men were unable to take advantage in the way that Lawrie Sanchez’s charges had done last term – and the hosts look marooned in the relegation zone with two games to go. Benitez thumbed his nose at the rest of the top flight by making eight changes but, after Liverpool weathered a lively start from the home side and took the lead through a fine finish from Pennant, they didn’t look in any danger.
Pennant, who broke a leg in October, banged in his second goal in 16 starts this season from a smart pass by Steven Gerrard’s replacement, Lucas Leiva, and Fulham, for all their commitment and sweat, could have done with a little of that power in front of goal.
With Javier Mascherano, Martin Skrtel, Sami Hyypia, Peter Crouch, Andriy Voronin and Pennant, who was jeered mercilessly by the Craven Cottage crowd after winning an early free kick against Clint Dempsey, it was still a Liverpool line-up that could equal the strength of many of their Premier League opponents.
Jamie Carragher and Fernando Torres were on the bench, but Carragher replaced Sami Hyypia at half-time and Xabi Alonso also came on in midfield.
Skipper Brian McBride recovered quickly from an early knock, before Dempsey’s determined progress down the left was halted by a crude challenge by Mascherano.
immy Bullard swung in a testing free kick that curled into the six-yard box, but keeper Jose Reina collected impressively.
Hyypia and Skrtel had their work cut out with timely interceptions as Fulham found width and movement for Simon Davies and Dempsey to provide a stream of crosses into the box, but Fulham were almost caught out by their former right back Steve Finnan’s run and cross in the 14th minute.
Defender Paul Stalteri did just enough to put off the towering Crouch, who put his header just wide of the mark.
And three minutes later they paid the price for not picking up Leiva in midfield when he snapped onto Voronin’s pass and provided the perfect lay-off for Pennant to drill a thundering right-foot shot high inside keeper Kasey Keller’s left-hand post.
As Fulham’s early fire faded, Crouch was close to a second Liverpool goal when he just failed to convert a Pennant cross and the closest Fulham came to equalising before the break was the giant Brede Hangeland’s off-target header from another Bullard free kick.
Liverpool looked composed and comfortable throughout the second half, even though Reina was left grasping thin air by a Davies cross from the left and a Dempsey snap-shot which both finished wide of the mark.
Russian striker Voronin lifted an overhead kick just too high from a Pennant corner as Liverpool looked for the killer second goal and Yossi Benayoun, enduring a patchy personal performance, twice finished off target from Pennant’s assists
With 20 minutes to go Dempsey’s header from a David Healy cross finished just wide, but seconds later Crouch sealed the points for Liverpool with a low finish from a Pennant pass which veteran keeper Keller will kick himself for not keeping out.
The ball, well struck though it was, appeared to go clean through the goalkeeper’s grasp.
Danny Murphy bungled a chance to put Fulham back in for a late shout when he rammed his shot at Reina’s legs when presented with a clear opening by the classy Bullard’s pass.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Keller; Stalteri, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Murphy (Andreasen 78), Bullard, Davies, Dempsey; McBride (Kamara 81), Healy (Nevland 76). Subs (not used): Warner, Bocanegra.
LIVERPOOL (4-5-1): Reina; Finnan, J.A. Riise, Skrtel, Hyypia (Carragher 45); Mascherano (Alonso 72), Lucas, Pennant, Benayoun, Voronin (Aurelio 82), Crouch. Subs (not used): Itandje, Torres.
GOALS: Pennant (17), Crouch (70).
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).