What a sickener that was. You can’t argue that Liverpool didn’t deserve the three points – they had most of the possession and most of the chances, but Fulham (and more importantly our woodwork – perhaps on loan from Reading) stood firm. Until the return of our old friend, the late goal, that is. In a worrying development, we seem to have started conceding crucial goals towards the end of home games.
Take out the Manchester United game – and the result alone makes that an anomaly – and we’ve lost three recent games to late goals. Of all of them, the Hull defeat was the hardest to take because of the true smash and grab nature of it. We should have killed them off long before Manucho arrived unmarked in the penalty area. Blackburn’s comeback was much less surprising as they started to dominate the midfield midway through the second half and, yesterday, as Yossi Benayoun had already missed two similar chances, it looked as we were out of the woods.
Yet, the singing members of the Hammersmith End choir – who, it has to be said, were in fine voice yesterday were silenced by Benayoun’s third attempt. It’s harsh to attach blame to tired players in situations like this, but the goal came about as Clint Dempsey – so impressive for us throughout this season – lost possession in a dangerous are and Paul Konchesky failed either to cut out the ball forward or stick to his man. The ball might have taken a fortunate bobble to sit up nicely for the Israeli, but his finish was so emphatic Mark Schwarzer had no chance.
The scoreline could have been a lot worse – and had it been, I wouldn’t have been quite so gutted walking through Bishop’s Park afterwards. Fulham seemed to play particularly deep and look to play on the counter-attack rather than playing with the same adventure and endeavour that so surprised Manchester United. Liverpool, predictably with Torres and Gerrard to the fore, wasted little time in getting onto the front foot.
Andrea Dossena, perhaps emboldened by his recent goalscoring spree, featured in plenty of Liverpool’s near-misses. He raced onto a good ball from Torres but his fierce shot from the each of the box was well turned over by a diving Schwarzer. From the ensuing corner, Dossena had the presence of mind to divert Martin Skrtel’s instinctive shot goalwards with his head and the ball bounced off the crossbar.
We seemed unable to close down the space that Gerrard found effortlessly between our defence and the midfield. Neither Danny Murphy or Dickson Etuhu had their best games but they had their hands full dealing with Liverpool’s more orthodox central midfielders as Xavi Alonso and Lucas, who had a much more impressive game than I was expecting after listening to some friendly Scousers slating him in the pub pre-match, controlled the game. Schwarzer was forced into a smart save from Torres before being merely a spectator as Alonso’s shot thundered off the crossbar.
There was one more big let off before the break too. Gerrard and Torres combined to prise open the Fulham defence and the Spaniard bore down on goal. Schwarzer charged off his line to try and narrow the angle but it looked for all the world as though Torres had squeezed his shot inside the far post. The ball struck the upright and rolled away to safety – and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.
I rather hoped that we might gain more of a foothold in the second half and, although we prevented Liverpool from cutting us open with such alarming regularity, we were restricted to patient passing and a few hopeful pot-shots from distance. The chronic lack of service to our front two is the main reason why I can’t really be too critical of either Bobby Zamora or Andy Johnson. Both worked tirelessly again and Zamora (or any other Fulham player for that matter) hardly got a decision out of the awful Steve Bennett all afternoon.
For all their pressure, Liverpool didn’t create too much until Rafa Benitez rung the changes late on. Ryan Babel nearly had an immediate impact and it needed a last-ditch challenge from John Pantsil to preserve parity.
Then came the final flurry. Benayoun missed a couple of good chances and Dempsey’s injury time break was crudely ended by a cynical sliding challenge from Skrtel. He wasn’t going to run 60 yards and score a wondergoal and it was probably telling that such a fleeting moment represented our best chance. Sadly, a better one was still to come for the visitors.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy (Dacourt 76), Dempsey, Davies (Gera 79); Zamora, A. Johnson (Nevland 87). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Kamara, Kallio, Baird.
BOOKED: Pantsil, Gera.
LIVERPOOL (4-5-1): Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua; Alonso, Lucas, Kuyt (Benayoun 76), Gerrard (Agger 90), Dossena (Babel 65); Torres. Subs (not used): Cavalieri, Riera, Mascherano, Ngog.
BOOKED: Babel, Skrtel.
GOAL: Benayoun (90)
REFEREE: Steve Bennett (Kent).