Fulham 1-2 Liverpool: Reds Survive Scare at the Cottage
Following their Champions League heroics in Munich, Liverpool traveled to London on Sunday, to the bank of The Thames, where they were to face Fulham at Craven Cottage as the 31st obstacle in their quest to end the 29-year-long Premier League title drought.
The Cottagers’ chances of survival were all but gone even before this round. Sitting in 19th, 13 points behind 17th-placed Burnley albeit with a game in hand on the Clarets, it’s hard to believe they actually had any hope. Following Slaviša Jokanović, Claudio Ranieri was the second manager to get the sack at the Cottage this season, and with the Italian named AS Roma coach since, Scott Parker took over for the rest of the campaign.
As for the Reds, this game was a good chance to gain some ground on Manchester City in the title race with City’s trip across town to Old Trafford had to be postponed due to their FA Cup obligations.
Jurgen Klopp was without his captain for the trip. Jordan Henderson twisted his ankle in Munich and had to be substituted early on as the Reds stormed to victory. Dejan Lovren had returned to fitness, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Gomez are both set to come back after the upcoming international break. Rhian Brewster remains out a while longer.
Sadio Mane, who scored twice in Munich on Wednesday, was a doubt for this encounter having missed some training this week, as well as Naby Keita who is on his way back from injury. Mane made it; Keita didn’t.
Meanwhile, Parker had now fresh absentees. Goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli (knee, missed previous six games), defender Alfie Mawson (knee, not played since December) and forward Andre Schurrle (virus, missed previous four) remained on that list.
The First Half
Liverpool’s approach early in the game was one of patience, waiting for the home team to come out slightly before charging forward and trying to land a hard hit. Lallana played very high, just behind Firmino, and the shape looked more like 4-2-3-1 with Wijnaldum slightly deeper, alongside Fabinho.
The Reds would occasionally burst forward, but Fulham weren’t going to be drawn out easily. The Cottagers were quick to get back when they lose the ball and took a brave approach in attack, and after nine minutes Seri had a go from 20 yards having received the ball off former Liverpool winger Ryan Babel, but he couldn’t control the shot properly.
Liverpool responded a minute later with Matip’s great diagonal finding Robertson who got clear of his marker on the left and tried to square it across six yards, but Rico read his mind.
The Reds didn’t have much trouble in getting possession and taking the ball forward, but once they’d reach the final third they lacked a bit of focus in passing and crossing; even Trent. It seemed Fulham relied on that as they allowed the visitors to exploit the width of the pitch on both flanks. Salah charged into the box from the right flank, but Ream did excellent defensive work to stop him and put it out. Trent’s corner found Matip unmarked, but the centre-back displayed the need to work on the accuracy of his headers.
Liverpool’s high press worked very well though, and they mostly forced Fulham to pass backwards before hoofing it long towards Mitrović, where the Serbian was well marshaled by van Dijk.
Lallana had a chance in the 25th minute as Firmino employed him on the left inside the box, but Fosu-Mensah did well to stop him.
However, there was no stopping the Reds 60 seconds later. Mane charged at the Manchester United loanee from the left, engaged Firmino on the byline, continued his run inwards and slammed Firmino’s pullback into the net. A devastating move that would have had the same outcome against any defence in the world.
Salah quickly tried to double the lead with a long-range effort which Rico saved with more trouble than it looked it needed to be.
It took the Cottagers 32 minutes to gain some meaningful possession in the opposition half, but they quickly learned how one stray pass can undo loads of good work done previously. Three minutes later, Robertson combined well with Mane and charged into the box, but once again Rico’s good positioning prevented the ball reaching the Red shirts on the far post.
Fulham responded through Babel who beat Trent on the left and pulled it back for Cairney on the edge of the box, but the captain couldn’t hit the target from there.
In the 39th minute, Ayite did well in his own half to disrupt a Lallana-Mane combination and gave it to Cairnry again. Trying to win it back, Fabinho tackled Cairney late and got into referee Craig Pawson’s book. The Brazilian was in danger of getting sent off with a second yellow immediately afterwards as he mowed down Seri this time, and he got a stern talking-to from Pawson instead.
Towards the end of the half, Liverpool’s game seemed to be losing its edge slightly with another bout of low focus causing some wasted opportunities, and the break came at a good moment.
The Second Half
Klopp opted to keep Fabinho in after the break, despite the booking and the warning.
Liverpool started swinging hard straight from the restart, and they came close after less than two minutes. Lallana and Salah did some good work that got the Englishman into the box, and he involved Wijnaldum who hit it hard towards Firmino on the edge of six yards. Firmino tried a clever back-heel flick to score, but Fosu-Mensah stood close enough to block it. But Liverpool continued attacking and it took all the focus and composure at the back Fulham could muster to stay just one goal down.
It was very pleasing to watch Lallana play. He was quick and sharp, constantly wanting the ball and giving his opponents a lot to do. Following an excellent display against Burnley, the 2016/17 Adam Lallana seems to be on the way back. Let’s hope he stays on that track.
In the 57th minute, Trent whipped in a good cross from the right and found van Dijk on the far post. The Dutchman tried to return it for Matip to tap in, but Rico was outstanding again.
By the hour-mark, Fulham players seemed to be showing worry on their faces. The few times they tried to organize a counterattack they were stopped in their track once across the halfway line. Alisson was barely invloved in the game at all in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Then the Cottagers earned a corner, but it almost turned into their undoing as Liverpool defended it well and Salah charged forward. Bryan was
in the 64th minute, Fulham finally went forward in numbers and played a good combination. They even got the ball in the net after a deflection fell kindly for them, but the goal was disallowed with several players caught offside.
Then Parker made his first change. Ryan Sessegnon came on for Seri. Babel moved into the middle behind Mitrović and Sessegnon took his place on the left.
The change worked immediately as Babel charged forward with the ball down the middle with plenty in support, but Liverpool tracked back quickly. The move ended with Anguissa blasting one from range and forcing Alisson into a good save.
Babel almost sent Mitrović through in the 71st minute but Alisson came out in time. Then Klopp responded.
James Milner and Divock Origi came on for Firmino and Lallana.
The play was restarted with a corner taken by Trent, and Mane headed his near-post cross onto the bar.
Fosu-Mensah had complained earlier about an injury, and he had to make way for Cyrus Christie.
And then, in the 74th minute, a disaster. Milner sliced a clearance awkwardly and put van Dijk under pressure from Babel. The Dutchman waited for Alisson to come for the ball and then headed back too short. Alisson lost the race for the ball and Babel calmly put it in the empty net. His teammates came up to him joyfully, but he didn’t celebrate a goal against Liverpool.
With their title chances set to take a hit, Liverpool now charged forward, and Fulham quickly undid all the good defensive work they had done before. A deep cross from the left side found Salah in inexplicable space inside the box, and Rico first saved the Egyptian’s shot, then dropped it, and then pulled Mane down from behind. Pawson didn’t hesitate too much. Penalty.
Milner stepped up and made amends for his involvement in Fulham’s equalizer.
With four minutes on the clock, Fulham went forward in numbers again and lost the ball. Mane was off, running towards two defenders, and he nicely set Salah up on the left, but Rico saved Salah’s shot again.
Fulham had absolutely nothing to lose at that point and they pushed forward hard. The ball traveled quickly from one end of the pitch to the other, and having had a few more attempts, Salah left the pitch in injury time to make way for Daniel Sturridge.
On the stroke of 93 minutes (three minutes of injury time had been announced), Bryan earned a booking for a frustrated tackle on Mane and that was the last moment of the game.
It was a close call. There was very little wrong with the overall performance of Klopp’s men, and mistakes in football do happen as van Dijk pointed out in his post-match interview, but games like this one feel like they need to be put away quickly, and not turned into a banana skin waiting to be stepped on.
Speaking of mistakes and post-match interviews, it was nice of Milner to own up and claim the mistake as his own.
Klopp on Milner sub
"That's impact, eh? Without Milly it is probably 1-0!" #LFC
— Neil Jones (@neiljonesgoal) March 17, 2019
Despite spending a lot last summer, plenty of things don’t work for Fulham at the moment, and the relegation now seems unavoidable. As for Liverpool, the Reds now sit top of the table again, two points ahead of Manchester City who have a game in hand.
Next up – Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on the last day of March.
We Walk On.