Fulham 1 - 2 Liverpool
Fulham: Babel 74’
Liverpool: Mané 26’, Milner (pen) 81’
Liverpool stumbled through a not-great day at the office and showed just enough quality and resolve to secure all three points from their visit to Craven Cottage. Jürgen Klopp, who was incandescent with rage when Fulham equalized, will no doubt be relieved by what was ultimately a fair scoreline, and will turn his attention to Tottenham Hotspur.
In the wake of their midweek exertions against Bayern Munich, Liverpool were not inclined to come charging out of the blocks here, and chose to press selectively during the early phases of the match. Which is not to say that the Reds were not a threat - both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson seemed to have been afforded license - and room - to operate on the flanks.
There was an early sign of things to come. Alexander-Arnold, with time and space, supplied Adam Lallana, who chipped the ball over to Mohamed Salah, but the forward had to receive it in an awkward position and couldn’t fashion a more concrete opportunity. Liverpool continued to lurk more than harass, looking to spring things quickly from Alisson and his defenders.
Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were the frequent beneficiaries of Fulham’s largesse, but both fullbacks struggled with accuracy at points during this match, and their decisions were less than ideal, at least during parts of the first half. The hosts’ rearguard was very much in a “bend, don’t break” mode, and followed that mandate brilliantly. Constantly living on the edge, Fulham’s defenders were, for the most part, able to make last-ditch tackles and blocks to frustrate Salah & Co. Tim Ream and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, in particular, were up for the challenge.
There were of course risks to this approach, and Liverpool were able to punish Fulham before the half-hour mark. Robertson started the move, finding Mané on the left, who quickly worked an exchange with Firmino, receiving the ball again from the Brazilian through dense traffic and tapping in from close range. It was a goal that was coming and fully deserved.
Fulham were not out of it by any stretch, however. Ryan Babel provided much of the forward impetus for the hosts, and was able to get past Alexander-Arnold much too easily and too often. Babel was ultimately let down by the teammates he was able to find on the counterattack, with the ultimate efforts mostly off target. Those sorties were few and far between, however, thanks to more controlled aggression from Lallana and Fabinho. The latter was booked and was lucky to escape a second yellow during the first half.
From the restart, it appeared that Fulham recognized the potential threat Babel could offer, and Scott Parker’s positional adjustments allowed the hosts to be on the front foot more often. Liverpool continued to feed their forward trio from the flanks, but Fulham’s back four continued to mop up all the spills as they happened. On the sidelines, James Milner started to warm up vigorously.
The Reds were still arguably in control, and they enjoyed perhaps their best spell of the match early in the second half. There were variations on a theme: first, Alexander-Arnold floated it to Mané in the box, who couldn’t quite dig out enough space for a shot. Moments later, Fabinho’s intelligent diagonal ball found a charging Van Dijk, but Sergio Rico was able to defuse the danger.
Liverpool’s sloppiness continued to rear its ugly head. A mislaid Firmino pass led to a quick Fulham counter, and they probed for what they hoped would be the equalizer, but Ayite’s header - which saw the ball end up in the net - was waved off for offside. There was no time for relief. Next, Fabinho committed himself in an attempt to stop a counter, and completely missed the ball. Fulham had the numerical advantage in acres of space, but Salah had rocketed back to close down, and did just enough for Liverpool to recover.
Klopp now ordered Milner and Origi on in place of Lallana and Firmino, but it wasn’t quite enough to stop what was coming. A sliced kick, an arcing overhead ball, and confusion between Van Dijk and Alisson allowed Babel the time and space to nip in and play the interloper, setting himself up for the easiest of open goalmouth opportunities. The Reds’ title challenge was now on life support.
To their credit, their play did not betray any signs of panic. With just under ten minutes left to salvage their season, Milner found Salah on the right side of the box, whose shot was parried by Rico - alas for Fulham, the keeper then held back Mané as Liverpool’s No. 10 tried to get to the rebound. Craig Pawson pointed to the spot, and Milner was somehow calm enough to blast the ball straight down the middle and into the net. That was how the scoreline remained, much to the relief of Liverpool supporters everywhere.