Fate works in mysterious ways in football. Three days ago, Mario Lemina was frustrated after being punished for the henois crime of having his arms by his side as Josh Maja’s equaliser was ruled out against Tottenham. Today, the Gabonese midfielder capped an outstanding display at Anfield with a fabulous finish from the edge of the box to extend Liverpool’s run without a home win to six matches as Scott Parker’s side moved level on the points with seventeeth-placed Brighton. Lemina’s rueful smile was replaced with a beam of delight as the Whites added more momentum to their survival bid.
Fulham thoroughly deserved a precious three points, but this was far from a fortunate smash and grab gleefully grabbed by relegation strugglers. Parker adopted a bold 4-4-2 seeking to seize on Liverpool’s home discomforts and their suicidally high defensive line – and the tactics worked from the outset. They could have been in front inside three moments when Kenny Tete’s cross found Josh Maja between Liverpool’s centre halves, but the former Sunderland forward’s volley was awkward and flashed wide. Maja might have had a hat-trick before the break, clipping a finish wide fro close range and being denied at point-blank range by Alisson, and Ademola Lookman, who terrorised Neco Williams down the left, had his own effort deflected over.
Jurgen Klopp made seven changes in a bid to end the defending champions’ desperate run of form but a lethargic Liverpool lacked the intensity that his sides have become known for. Mo Salah, after throwing himself to the floor in an attempt to win an early spot-kick, was denied by a sprawling Alphonse Areola after outwitting Ola Aina and flickered intermittently rather than dominating proceedings. The returning Diogo Jota almost seized on a mix-up between Areola and the otherwise excellent Joachim Andersen, but Fulham’s defenders limited the home side to patient passing before speculative shots from range.
They hadn’t found the finishing touch to crown an encouraging first half, until Lemina’s anticipatory instincts were matched by a magnificent finish on the stroke of half time. The on-loan Southampton midfielder nipped in to nick the ball off Salah as Liverpool cleared a Fulham corner and then lashed a low drive beyond Alisson’s dive into the bottom right corner. It was only Fulham’s fourth goal at Anfield in the 21st century – and it could prove valuable in their fight against the drop. The job was just half done and diligent defending was necessary to record a fourth clean sheet in their last seven fixtures.
Areola produced an agile save to claw away Jota’s first-time volley at the start of the second period after Williams had somehow dug a cross out after being closed down by Aina, but Liverpool hardly put their opponents under a significant spell of unrelenting pressure. The visitors even had a chance to extending their lead, when Ivan Cavaleiro robbed James Milner in midfield and raced clear, cutting inside and shooting wide after a lungbusting individual run. Sadio Mane, who rescued the Reds at Craven Cottage before Christmas, struck the angle of post and crossbar with a header from Naby Kaita’s cross before spurning a simpler headed chance. Xherdan Shaqiri curled wide of the post from the edge of the box, but Fulham’s desire to cling on to a massive victory was typfied by the way Andersen slid in to clear over the crossbar as Mane looked set to tap in from close range.
Parker has been maligned for his pragmatism at times in his Craven Cottage tenure, but the young manager’s tactical acumen allied with Fulham’s sense of adventure delivered Fulham’s second win at Liverpool in the club’s history – extending their unbeaten run away from home to eight games at a crucial point in the season. The Whites have come a long way since Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher announced their certain relegation on television three weeks into the campaign. Quietly, one of the country’s most promising managers might just have the last laugh.
LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Alisson; N. Williams (Alexander-Arnold 76), Robertson, Phillips, R. Williams; Wijnaldum (Mane 62), Milner (Fabinho 76), Keita; Shaqiri, Jota, Salah. Subs (not used): Adrian, Tsimikas, Thiago, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jones, Origi.
BOOKED: Jota, Keita.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Areoa; Tete, Aina, Andersen, Adarabioyo; Reed, Lemina, Decordova-Reid, Lookman (Robinson 83); Maja (Loftus-Cheek 67), Cavaleiro (Mitrovic 85). Subs (not used): Fabri, Hector, Ream, Kongolo, Bryan, Anguissa.
BOOKED: Tete, Lemina, Mitrovic.
GOAL: Lemina (45).
REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).
VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire).