Plenty of Fulham fans have bemoaned our lack of ambition away from home over the years. Even Roy Hodgson, lauded down by the Thames long before the big name pundits started talking him as a potential successor to Fabio Capello, hasn’t been immune from criticism. Not on this ocassion. Hodgson sets his teams not to get beaten on the road – perhaps a legacy of Fulham’s poor away record as well as his spells as a coach in Serie A – and this afternoon they blunted Liverpool’s bid for Champions’ League qualification with a disciplined defensive performance.
You couldn’t really criticise Fulham for barely testing Pepe Reina until the final stages. Up against a rampant red tide from the start, it took Hodgson’s side some twenty minutes to feel their way into the game, but Liverpool never really rediscovered the rhythm and urgency that carried such a threat to Mark Schwarzer’s goal in the opening exchanges. The Australian international has now kept 12 clean sheets in 24 games against Liverpool and he pulled a few fine saves to preserve parity.
Benitez might rue another set of strange decisions. The Liverpool manager, who early in the season guaranteed that his side would finish in fourth place, excluded Fernando Torres altogether, and then took off the home side’s most potent weapon in Alberto Aquilani, who had been buzzing around the Fulham penalty area with intent, midway through the second half. The Italian almost seemed to be staging his own personal duel with Schwarzer, such was the regularity with which he was directing shots at the Fulham. If the midfielder brought it from Roma can get over his much-discussed injury problems, he will make a real impression on the Premier League.
Aquilani, thriving in central midfield with Steven Gerrard just in front of him, also displayed a fine range of passing. His tremendous agility saw Schwarzer gather an overheaded kick when it looked as though the little livewire had been crowded out at the near post. Schwarzer was in action again shortly afterwards, coming out to narrow the angle after Maxi Rodriguez burst in on goal.
David Ngog was a willing runner before being replaced late in the piece, but the French striker still looks raw, befitting a 19-year-old with little first-team experience. Ngog had a couple of half chances in the first half, stabbing wide from Gerrard’s glorious crossfield ball and blazing wildly over when he had managed to get away from Brede Hangeland.
The Norwegian and, especially Aaron Hughes – making his hundredth Premier League appearance for Fulham – were excellent at the heart of an impressive Fulham defence that succeeded in both sucking the life out of Liverpool’s bright start and frustrating the Anfield crowd. When needed, there was cover too from Chris Baird, who diligently countered the danger presented by Ryan Babel. Indeed, neither Babel nor the anonymous Maxi Rodriguez were able to exploit the areas where a largely unchanged Fulham side might have proven vulnerable: down the flanks.
Fulham have stitched together impressive displays against the big sides this year, but have often come up short at the crucial times. The second-half surrender at Old Trafford, precipitated by Wayne Rooney’s opener just after the break recently sticks in the mind, but Hodgson’s side have also stumbled in the second half against Arsenal and, of course, Chelsea, this term. They showed commendable fortitude to survive the best Liverpool could throw at them after half time.
Again, Aquilani was to the fore. The Italian playmaker extended Schwarzer from the edge of the box before shooting just wide from the ensuing corner and, later in the half, fluffed his lines after Ngog had done well to get in a cross from the dead-ball line. Babel, who often wanders through games before producing a moment of brilliant, skipped inside and drove a shot goalwards from the left angle of the box – forcing Schwarzer into a smart stop at his near post. Perhaps the most glaring miss came from Sotirios Kyrgiakos, who headed wastefully over after Kuyt had been given too much room to turn and cross from a short corner.
Ironically, having been on the back foot all afternoon, Fulham might have stolen all three points but for a brilliant Reina save from a Damien Duff shot in injury-time. Considering that Fulham have never won at Anfield and that this dogged display came on the back of that historic night in Wolfsburg, this precious point actually feels like a win.
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; G. Johnson, Agger, Carragher, Kyrgiakos; Mascherano, Aquilani (Kuyt 65); Maxi Rodriguez, Gerrard, Babel (Benayoun 72); Ngog (Pacheco 79). Subs (not used): Cavalieri, Degen, Ayala, Lucas.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy (Dikgacoi 76), Duff, Greening (Riise 82); Zamora (Okaka 68), Nevland. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, S. Kelly, Shorey.
BOOKED: Greening, Murphy, Duff.
REFEREE: Andre Marriner (Birmingham).