A home game against the team lying bottom of the league is, in theory, the easiest game of the season, and any team aspiring to achieve something at the end of the season has to bury that one away. In the 12th round of the 2018/19 Premier League season, Liverpool welcomed Fulham.
For once it was good news on the ole injury front for Liverpool and manager Jurgen Klopp. Captain Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita were back after suffering hamstring issues, Dejan Lovren was back too after being taken ill for the midweek trip to Belgrade. Joe Gomez was a slight doubt but he was ready as well.
There were few concerns for Slaviša Jokanović in the other dugout as well. Captain Tom Cairney had recovered and played in their previous game (Huddersfield), but Joe Bryan and Kevin McDonald remained out due to hamstring issues.
The First Half
Fulham are a team that like to play on the front foot under Jokanović, but they haven’t yet come to grips with the difference in quality between the Championship and the Premier League, and therein seems to be the reason for their current situation.
It again came close to costing them as they approached this clash with attacking intent too, thus enabling Liverpool to apply a more direct approach and win space quickly.
In the fourth minute, Trent’s cross came slightly behind the back of Firmino and Mane couldn’t hit the target from a favorable position on the follow-up. The young right-back was again involved two minutes later when Shaqiri’s run down the middle opened up some space for him on the flank, but he misplaced his cross.
With nine minutes gone, some good work by Mitrović earned a corner for the visitors, but the delivery was very poor. Straight afterwards, Mane skilfully danced past several opponents in the middle of the pitch and tried to release Salah, but he slightly overhit the pass. Schurrle tried to hit back by running at Robertson at the other end and delivering a good cross, but the Reds defended well before Shaqiri blasted one from range just wide of the target.
It was a lively opening period, and in the 16th minute Salah and Firmino combined beautifully to get past Fulham’s back line, but Rico came out in time and stopped the Egyptian from scoring.
Liverpool were slowly pushing the Cottagers back.
Less than 20 minutes were gone when a great pass by Fabinho found the run of Trent into the box, and the youngster went for a spectacular lobbing header which which beat Rico but ended up on the roof of the net. The Fulham ‘keeper was forced to make a good save just a minute later when Shaqiri found Salah inside the box and the Egyptian blasted it on target from a tight angle.
But for of Liverpool’s dominance, in the 24th minute Fulham had the best chance of the game up that point. Rico took a goal-kick long and Mitrović brought it down for Sessegnon who slid past Gomez and suddnely found himself one-on-one with Alisson. However, the left-back put his shot wide and wasted a moment that would have certainly given his team a good boost had he scored.
But in the 29th minute Fulham hit again as Schurrle was left with far too much time and space on the edge of the box. The German took a shot but couldn’t beat Alisson. Salah then threatened with his pace at the other end but there were too many white shirts involved for him to do much. In the 32nd minute, the Reds were awarded a free-kick some 25-yards out in a good position for a left-footer. Shaqiri stepped up and hit the wall. Sessegnon threatened again straight away at the other end, but he couldn’t hit the target under pressure from van Dijk.
Mane should have done better in the 38th minute when some nice work by Robertson and Firmino allowed him to take his marker out, but his touch wasn’t soft enough and allowed Odoi to cut across and clear the danger.
And then, a controversial moment that went Liverpool’s way. Mitrovć got to the end of a good cross by Cairney from the right and placed his header into the net, but the linesman’s flag was raised for offside. It should be said it was a questionable decision, but Fulham players were completely paralysed by the moment and allowed Trent to easily release Salah “down the wing” in behind, and Salah, one-on-one with Rico, did what he does best.
Mitrović immediately had another chance at the other end as Cairney set him up for an unobstructed shot from around 12 yards, but Alisson read his mind and made a comfortable save.
The Second Half
The opening minutes of the second half were tough battle which the Reds were slowly winning, and in four minutes in Shaqiri (with a dive, it has to be said) earned a free-kick wide on the right. Salah, however, wasted the opportunity with a poor effort that was neither a shot nor a cross. Three minutes later, Shaqiri plucked a good pass by Robertson out of the air and brought it down for Mane, whose shot from around 20 yards was well-saved by Rico.
However, after a nice combination from the ensuing corner, involving several players, Robertson again found Shaqiri with a beautiful cross that caught Fulham’s defence on their heels, and the Swiss international deftly put it in the net from six yards.
The second goal seemed to have steadied the ship when it comes to Liverpool’s game. They were much calmer in possession and completely in control. They were turning up the pressure slowly but purposefully, and it was a tough choice for the visitors whether to try and hit back or opt for a damage limitation approach. They earned a first booking of the game when Chambers sunk his studs into Salah’s foot at around 30 yards and gave away a free-kick, from which van Dijk hit the wall.
In the 63rd minute, an injury apparently forced Cairney off the pitch and he was replaced by Jean-Michael Seri.
It soon became obvious that the visitors would try and get back into the game, but as they moved forward in numbers, a sudden counterattack left Firmino in a lot of space down the middle. Drawing attention onto himself, the Brazilian employed Robertson on the left whose powerful drive was barely saved by Rico.
At the other end, Mitrović was doing a good job for his team with his formidable hold-up play, and Sessegnon was given more roaming freedom as he kept popping up on both flanks to capitalize on Mitrović’s effort. Shurrle was there too and the whole of Liverpool’s back line still had a lot to do. But as the game progressed, the Serbian striker seemed more isolated and tired by the minute.
Liverpool had another free-kick chance as a good combination between Shaqiri and Salah made the opposition break the rules right on the edge of the box, but this time it was Trent’s turn to hit the wall.
Then Wijnaldum, who quietly had a good game, made way for Jordan Henderson.
With 13 minutes remaining, Gomez got into referee Paul Tierney’s book after a tussle with Mitrović near the halfway line, and Schurrle made way for Luciano Vietto for the visitors.
After Trent had a go from range that went over the bar in the 81st minute, Shaqiri left the pitch to be replaced by James Milner.
As the contest entered its final stage, Fulham gave a bit more going forward, but it was nothing the Reds couldn’t handle.
Then Anguissa made way for Stefan Johansen in Jokanovic’s last move of the game, right before Mitrović failed to hit the target from a favorable position 20 yards out.
However, the last moments belonged to Liverpool again as they pushed the visitors all the way back and had them defend for their lives. Salah almost scored his second in the final minute of the 90 but his shot that would probably have beaten Rico and ended up in the net was blocked.
The three minutes of injury time were rather uneventful, apart from Fabinho making way for Naby Keita and the Reds keeping their opposition pegged well back.
It was good to see the midfield combination of Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Shaqiri work so well. Unlike in Belgrade on Tuesday, the Reds looked very balanced. Fabinho was very sharp in his deep role, in all honesty, lucky to avoid a card a few times, and whenever he’d venture forward Wijnaldum was there to plug the gap.
Having been somewhat controversially rested in midweek, Shaqiri had a great game. He looked very lively, constantly getting on the ball in the middle of the park and spraying it in every direction. Reportedly signed this summer as a backup winger, the former Stoke City player is obviously enjoying the midfield role he’s been getting due (probably) to the failed transfer of Nabil Fekir from Lyon and a few early-season injury struggles by Naby Keita and Adam Lallana.
All in all, a routine victory for Klopp and his men that takes them to the top of the table at least for a few hours, while keeping Fulham firmly on the bottom.
Next up – another international break. And then – Watford at the Vicarage.
We Walk On.