Daniel Sturridge wreaked havoc on his return to west London, firing Liverpool to an easy win at Fulham with a superb hat-trick at Craven Cottage.
Sturridge had not scored against the Cottagers during his time at the club’s local rivals Chelsea or while he was at Manchester City but he took Martin Jol’s team apart on Sunday with three well-taken strikes.
Three minutes after Dimitar Berbatov had nodded Fulham ahead, the England striker turned Aaron Hughes inside-out before smashing the ball into the roof of the net.
The 23-year-old latched on to Philippe Coutinho’s deflected pass before beating Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer to make it 2-1 and he rounded off the win at the death with a clever chip over the Australian No 1, who was playing possibly his last match for the club.
Liverpool’s poor form earlier in the campaign had already put to bed their hopes of a top-four finish, but their run in the final stretch of the season certainly gives fans hope that next year could be the year that they get back into the big time.
They impressed today with some eye-catching, free-flowing football in the second half, and they did it without either Luis Suarez or Steven Gerrard.
If they avoid defeat against QPR next weekend, they will end the season with an encouraging eight-match unbeaten run.
Fulham’s final game of the season ended with boos from the Craven Cottage crowd after they saw their team extend their losing streak to five games.
Four red flares went off in the away end as the teams emerged from the tunnel, giving the match an air of excitement.
That soon began to dwindle, however, as both teams plodded along without threatening goal.
Jonjo Shelvey, in for injured captain Gerrard, broke into the Fulham box after slaloming past two defenders, but Sascha Riether put in a timely block.
Liverpool dominated possession, but Schwarzer remained untested until the 15th minute when Coutinho stung the Australian’s palms with a 20-yard drive after he had rode a crunching tackle from Eyong Enoh.
Fulham were forced into an early change when Kieran Richardson came off and was replaced by Urby Emanuelson.
Fulham barely had a touch of the ball in the opening half-hour, but they went ahead after 32 minutes.
Damien Duff tapped the ball to Riether, who appeared to be in an offside position, and he whipped the ball to the back post where Berbatov nodded in after slipping in between Glen Johnson and Jamie Carragher.
The lead lasted just three minutes and 15 seconds. Andre Wisdom punted the ball upfield, Sturridge picked the ball out of the sky with his right boot and lifted it over Hughes before rifling into the roof of Schwarzer’s goal.
The former Chelsea man then taunted the home fans with a cocky celebration.
Berbatov sensed a chance to make it 2-1 when he latched on to Riether’s cross, but Sebastian Coates nudged the ball behind for a corner.
The match had a lot more energy to it after the restart. Liverpool brought Jose Enrique on for Wisdom and switched to 4-4-2 after the break.
Johnson received a booking soon after for a poor tackle which saw him catch Enoh on the shins after going over the top of the ball.
Former Liverpool trainee Alexander Kacaniklic raced through after pinching the ball off Jordan Henderson, but he shot wide.
The Cottagers thought they should have had a penalty on the hour when Bryan Ruiz’s cross struck Lucas Leiva’s outstretched arm, but referee Mark Halsey waved play on.
Two minutes later and Liverpool were ahead for the first time. Coutinho’s deflected pass fell into Sturridge’s path and he calmly stroked the ball past Schwarzer.
The forward robbed Brede Hangeland moments later, but this time he could not beat Schwarzer.
Pepe Reina did brilliantly to deny Hughes during a rare Fulham attack, but Liverpool were soon back on the attack through substitute Fabio Borini, who hit a post after giving his marker the slip.
Sturridge then scored the goal which ensured he took home the match ball. The former Chelsea man latched on to Coutinho’s through-ball and lifted the ball over Schwarzer for what was his sixth goal in his last four matches.
Fulham: Schwarzer, Riether, Hughes, Hangeland, Richardson (Emanuelson 15), Duff, Karagounis (Riise 82), Enoh, Kacaniklic (Petric 71), RuSturridge 36, Sturridge 62, Sturridge 85iz, Berbatov.
Subs Not Used: Etheridge, Senderos, Frimpong, Rodallega.
Goals: Berbatov 33
Liverpool: Reina, Wisdom (Jose Enrique 46), Coates, Carragher, Johnson, Henderson, Lucas, Shelvey (Borini 77), Downing, Sturridge, Coutinho (Coady 88).
Subs Not Used: Brad Jones, Assaidi, Suso, Lloyd Jones.
Referee: Mark Halsey.