Benayoun keeps hopes alive


ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE: Fulham 0, Liverpool 1

PATIENCE FINALLY snapped some 20 minutes after the final whistle, prompting the first appeal to be issued over the public address system for the Liverpool supporters to leave the stadium. It went ignored.

The visiting players, milling around the tunnel area hoping to venture back out on to the turf to conduct their warm-down, gawped as those crammed on to the Putney end bounced as one to a chorus of: “We’re going to win the league.” And now we might just believe them.

This could have been the afternoon the dream died. Four times the Fulham woodwork had quivered before the interval under relentless Liverpool pressure. At least four times after the break the hosts’ back-line somehow scrambled clear or watched attempts billow the side-netting, amid the visitors’ blanket possession.

Ignominy beckoned as this exercise in massed attack against committed defence lurched into stoppage time, only for Yossi Benayoun to batter a winner at the last. Where seconds earlier there had been desperation, now there was conviction to propel those on Merseyside and unsettle the onlookers in Manchester.

The achievement in deflating United at Old Trafford last month was remarkable, though last-minute victories could inflict just as much psychological damage in the title race. Regardless of what the champions achieved some 24 hours later against Aston Villa, here was evidence that Liverpool will be breathing down their necks through the run-in.

No other side in the top four had won at Craven Cottage. United had been whipped up into such a frenzy of frustration here in the previous round of fixtures that they ended defeated and depleted with only nine men. This arena had been christened the graveyard of champions. It could yet prove the arena in which Liverpool’s credentials were confirmed.

The 2,000 or so fans who were still bellowing their belief half an hour after the end seemed convinced. The Liverpool players eventually gave up on their plans to return to the pitch, some departing with applause for the away support, others with smiles of bemusement at the fervour.

“The win against United was very important and the way we did it meant we could show everyone United are beatable,” said Benayoun. “What we did that day was knock United’s confidence down. That was a factor in them then losing at Fulham.

“We knew it would be difficult coming here ourselves, and we missed a lot of chances and were starting to think it was going to be one of those days when the ball wouldn’t go in. But we’ve won a lot of matches this season in the last few minutes and that just shows the strength of our character.”

Stings in the tail have secured points in the last minute against Fulham, Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Portsmouth, in the last two minutes against Chelsea, and the last 10 against Wigan, Sunderland and Blackburn. It was a happy knack upon which United once had the monopoly.

Rafael Benitez will now relish the week ahead and the latest instalment of this club’s Champions League tete-a-tete with Chelsea, even if he must check on Steven Gerrard’s fitness at Melwood today ahead of Wednesday’s quarter-final first leg after the midfielder was subbed in stoppage time. The manager seemed confident enough that his captain’s hamstring had not been tweaked – “he felt something but he was just tired” – and will be buoyed that momentum is with his side in their two-fronted pursuit.

He was asked after the match whether he believed in fate. “In Spain we say that luck is in love with people who work hard,” he replied. “We work hard so, hopefully, we’ll have more luck. We have to keep cool heads from now on. The key is to be consistent. In the past we were a little bit anxious, a little bit nervous, so we’d have a lot of good games and then one or two bad games. But now we are playing with more confidence.”

It was too much for Fulham, even if their own commitment was admirable. Roy Hodgson’s side have flourished quietly and efficiently this season and earned the good fortune that saw Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and Andrea Dossena, twice, cannon attempts off the woodwork. Mark Schwarzer, wonderfully protected by those in front of him, was outstanding yet again and there was industry and endeavour throughout their display, even if Jose Reina went virtually untroubled.

Hodgson said: “Of the two teams they were the better but our own performance was really strong. We fought well, the shape was good throughout, so to lose in the 92nd minute was frustrating.”

Guardian Service