Liverpool needed a late penalty from James Milner to secure a shaky victory over Fulham at Craven Cottage this afternoon and return to the top of the Premier League table. It looked briefly as though the lowly Londoners would spring a surprise after former Liverpool winger Ryan Babel punished a rare mistake from Virgil van Dijk to grab an equaliser against his old side but an error from Sergio Rico gifted Milner the opportunity to clinch all three points from the spot.

Liverpool appeared well placed to take advantage of Manchester City’s FA Cup commitments when Sadio Mane finished off a slick move down the left to fire Jurgen Klopp’s title challengers ahead midway through the first half. The Senegalese forward scored his twentieth goal of the season after cutting inside from the left wing, working a one-two at pace with Roberto Firmino and sending a first time finish past Rico in the blink of an eye.

Mane rattled the bar with a flicked header from a corner but Fulham, who grew in belief the longer their deficit remained slender, found a route back into the contest when Babel took advantage of a defensive calamity with a quarter of hour to play. They had already seen Floyd Ayite denied a predatory equaliser by the offside flag when Milner sliced a clearance just after coming off the bench and panic set in amongst the Liverpool defence. Both van Dijk and goalkeeper Allison seemed to wait for the other to deal with it and the Dutchman’s poor back header was seized upon by Babel, who rolled the simplest of finishes into an unguarded net.

But the story of Fulham’s season has been a series of untimely blunders. This one came from Rico, who let a curler from Mo Salah slip from his grasp and desperately pulled down Mane as he looked set to follow up. It was a clear penalty and one that was converted nervelessly by Milner. This was Fulham’s seventh straight defeat and Scott Parker’s side – however spirited they were for much of the afternoon against much stronger opposition – now looked doomed thirteen points from safety.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico; Fosu-Mensah (Christie 73), Bryan, Chambers, Ream; Anguissa, Seri (R. Sessegnon 65); Ayite, Babel, Cairney (Kebano 82); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Fabri, Odoi, McDonald, Vietto.

BOOKED: Anguissa, Bryan.

GOAL: Babel (76).

LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Allison; Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, van Dijk, Matip; Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Lallana (Milner 72); Salah (Sturridge 90+2), Firmino (Origi 72), Mane. Subs (not used): Mignolet, Lovren, Moreno, Shaqiri.

BOOKED: Fabinho.

GOALS: Mane (26), Milner (pen 80).

REFEREE: Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire).