Conventional wisdom hardens when unchallenged. The pundits proclaimed Aleksandar Mitrovic a flat track bully and Fulham Premier League cannon fodder. The likes of Chris Sutton, Robbie Savage, even the erudite Ali Bruce-Ball, might be eating a slice of humble pie this evening after Marco Silva’s side more than matched Liverpool in a rip-roaring start to their latest battle to beat the drop. Mitrovic was lean and mean, monstering Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk all afternoon, dropping into pockets of space to give his disciplined defence some respite and bagging two goals. The Serbian striker might have had a hat trick if he hadn’t dragged a presentable chance wide of goal in the third minute.
Silva had promised his side would attack the top tier in the same way that the Whites had committed to adventure in the Championship. Such disdain for pragmatism stood in stark contrast to Scott Parker’s approach, but it also did for Slavisa Jokanovic at Craven Cottage. Last week, the Portuguese head coach bemoaned his club’s slowness in bringing in the bodies neccessary to establish themselves at English football’s top table – echoing the words of his predecessors. There was a sense of deja vu echoing around Craven Cottage. The gloom lifted within seconds of the first shrill blast of Andy Madley’s whistle.
Fulham utterly overwhelmed a rusty Liverpool from the outset. Mitrovic might have done better with his first sight of goal, but the hosts – roared on by an animated home crowd – harried the Champions’ League finalists from the outset. Harrison Reed and Joao Palhinha, paired together at the base of the hosts’ midfield, conclusively won the battle for the engine room and the Whites were rampant. Antonee Robinson raced along the left flank with glee, both keeping Mo Salah quiet and curbing the attacking instincts of Trent Alexander-Arnold for good measure.
Liverpool’s first attack fifteen minutes in ended was academic once an offside flag ruled out Luis Diaz’s curler that had found the top corner. But Fulham’s raids were much more threatening. A devilish free-kick from Andreas Pereira was half cleared but Mitrovic sent in a speculative shot. Reed rattled an effort goalbound from outside the area but Matip got his body in the way and a dangerous ball in from Neeskens Kebano flashed right across goal, narrowly missing Mitrovic.
The lead arrived just after the half hour mark and it was a fitting reward for Fulham remaining on the front foot. Pereira, a player Jokanovic wanted to sign only to to be overruled by the club’s analytics department, released Neeskens Kebano. The Congolese winger – another player revitalised by Silva – used the overlapping run of Kenny Tete and the Dutchman’s deep cross allowed Mitrovic to soar above Alexander-Arnold at the back post and plant a header past Allison. Craven Cottage erupted in joy.
The shock of going behind seemed to enliven Liverpool from their lunchtime lethargy. Andrew Robertson shot across the face of goal before Diaz rattled the far post with a clever strike that took the tiniest of deflections off Tete. The hosts were cheered off at half time and Klopp jogged off the pitch, intend on telling his players a few home truths. He responded to Thiago limping off with a hamstring strain with a double change that saw former Fulham midfielder Harvey Elliott enter proceedings. Elliott, whose switch to Anfield proved more acrimonious than the one made by Fabio Carvalho this summer, changed the balance of the game with his raids forward from mdifield.
Fulham might have extended their lead when Decordova-Reid stripped Elliott of possession and slipped a lovely ball through to Pereira, but the Brazilian’s return ball was scrambled clear by a stretching Matip. Tim Ream then joined the fun, venturing forward from centre back to feed Reed and Kebano, who cut in from the right and dispatched a right-footed effort that bounced back off the inside of the far post. Silva’s side were so close to a two-goal cushion, but their advantage was soon wiped out all together.
Elliott played a prominent role with a glorious touch to give Salah some space in which to operate on the right and the Egyptian’s low ball was brilliantly finished by Darwin Nunez, who deftly lofted it over a helpless Rodak – who had already denied him with a wonderful reflex save. The Uruguayan almost turned the game on its head a minute later, holding off Tosin Adarabioyo to shoot past the Fulham goalkeeper but veteran Ream arrived in the nick of time to clear off the line – a quite brilliant piece of defensive cover.
Liverpool looked set to press for a winner, but it was the hosts who went ahead again. Manor Solomon, who contributed an eye-catching cameo on his Premier League debut, played Mitrovic through one-on-one against van Dijk. The Serbian twisted and turned his way past the revered Dutch defender, inducing the clumsiest of challenges, and Madley pointed to the spot. Gone are the days when Mitrovic was fallible from twelve yards – he thumped the spot-kick past Allison into the bottom corner.
Fulham weren’t able to hold on for a famous victory. Ream and Adarabioyo went for the same ball with the American’s clearing header only reaching Alexander-Arnold. The full back found Nunez and Salah slotted home to set up a grandstand finish. Jordan Henderson did the bar in stoppage time, but if Liverpool had escaped SW6 with all three points, a Metropolitan Police crime reference number for robbery would have been in order. Fulham were fantastic, flawlessly executing Silva’s game plan, in a showing that suggests this season in the Premier League could just be different.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Palhinha; Kebano (Solomon 66), Decordova-Reid (Duffy 90), Pereira (Cairney 10); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Leno, Mbabu, Francois, Harris, Stansfield, Muniz.
BOOKED: Tete, Decordova-Reid.
GOALS: Mitrovic (32, pen 72).
LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Becker; Alexander-Arnold, A. Robertson, Matip, van Dijk; Henderson, Fabinho (Milner 59), Thiago (Elliott 55); Salah, Diaz (Carvalho 78), Firmino (Nunez 51). Subs (not used): Adrian, Gomez, Bajcetic, van der Berg, Chambers.
GOALS: Nunez (64), Salah (80).
REFEREE: Andy Madley (Yorkshire).