This turned out to be the routine Liverpool victory that almost everybody expected, but a tight and cagey contest turned on fourteen pivotal seconds just before half-time. Slavisa Jokanovic’s rejigged defensive unit had battled bravely before the interval, spurning a couple of chances on the counter-attack, and looked to have taken the lead when Aleksandar Mitrovic powered home Tom Cairney’s cross. As the visitors celebrated what they thought was the opening goal, Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson reacted to the offside flag and sent a quick free-kick out to Trent Alexander-Arnold. The full back’s forward ball released Mohamed Salah, and with Denis Odoi attempting to play offside on the half-way line, the Egytian sauntered in to slot the ball beyond Sergio Rico. Television replays suggested assistant referee Adrian Holmes might have been wrong to rule out Mitrovic’s goal and that Alisson’s quick bit of thinking had seen him strike a moving ball. When your luck is out, it’s well and truly out.
Fulham’s formation might have been conservative, designed to try and remove some of the truly awful defensive mistakes that have characterised their calamitous start to life back in the top flight, but they did pose Liverpool a few problems in a low-key first half. Teenage winger Ryan Sessegnon will feel he should have done much better than merely shoot wide of the far post when a clever flick from Mitrovic sent him clear through the middle of the Liverpool defence, whilst Alisson was almost embarrassed when he nearly parried a Schurrle shot straight back to the Serbian striker.
In between times, Fulham were indebted to Rico for keeping them in the contest. The Spaniard produced a smothering save to keep out Salah as he sought to link up with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino on the edge of the Fulham box and spread himself well to prevent the Egyptian from opening the scoring. The recalled Xherdan Shaqiri proved the most likely source of Liverpool inspiration for much of the first period, twice firing wide from promising positions, whilst also sending a steady supply of chances to Jurgen Klopp’s three forwards. Alexander-Arnold might have done better than waste good positions when he pushed forward on the right – but the turning point on the cusp of half-time put an entirely different complexion on proceedings.
Calum Chambers had enjoyed an encouraging outing as an additional holding midfielder alongside Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who still looks to be getting to grips with the demands of Premier League football. But the concession of that goal to Salah necessitated more urgency in Fulham’s play after the break, especially with Mitrovic horribly isolated up front for much of a fruitless afternoon. The visitors were penned back almost from the start of the second half and were grateful to another splendid save from Rico, who somehow turned Mane’s shot, that looked destined for the top corner, over the bar.
The relief was merely, temporary, however. Fulham seemed to have survived the danger when Alexander-Arnold’s corner was overhit but as the ball broke to Robertson in a crossing position down the left, Tom Cairney made the critical decision to leave Shaqiri unattended at the back post, and the Swiss international handsomely volleyed home his second league goal of the season from eight yards out. From the point on, the result was an inevitably – it was a surprise that Liverpool couldn’t plunder further goals as the belief drained from their opponents.
Fulham were limited, but spirited. There was far more fight soon here than in the spineless surrender at Huddersfield last Monday night. A seventh consecutive defeat could spell the end for Jokanovic, but on this performance that would be particularly harsh. The Serbian should get the international break and the opportunity to prepare his side for another crucial six-pointer at Craven Cottage against Southampton at the very least.
LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Gomez, van Dijk; Fabinho (Keita 90+2), Wijnaldum (Henderson 69), Shaqiri (Milner 82); Mane, Salah, Firminio. Subs (not used): Mignolet, Lovren, Moreno, Sturridge.
GOALS: Salah (41), Shaqiri (53).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico; Christie, Le Marchand, Mawson, Odoi; Chambers, Anguissa (Johansen 84); Schurrle (Vietto 78), R. Sessegnon, Cairney (Seri 63). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Ream, Fosu-Mensah, Kebano.
REFEREE: Paul Tierney (Wigan).