Liverpool re-take top spot after surviving Fulham scare

James Milner came off the bench to score a winning penalty after Ryan Babel equalised

Liverpool’s James Milner scores their second goal from a penalty during the Premier League win over Fulham at Craven Cottage. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Liverpool’s James Milner scores their second goal from a penalty during the Premier League win over Fulham at Craven Cottage. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters

 

Fulham 1 Liverpool 2

There was a brief period here where doubt might have crept into Liverpool’s challenge, just as hope simultaneously flared in distant Manchester. Jürgen Klopp’s team had been so utterly dominant, albeit without ever threatening to run away with this contest, so to ship such a sloppy equaliser 16 minutes from time, surrendering to defensive indecision for the first time all afternoon, felt critical. As it was, their ability to recover from that setback in what time remained will merely serve to reinforce belief that the title will be theirs.

It would take a slip from Sergio Rico, first in failing to hold Mohamed Salah’s relatively tame shot and then, as panic gripped, wrapping his arm around Sadio Mané as he sought to reach the rebound, to hand Liverpool their lifeline nine minutes from time. The forward’s dramatic tumble made sure the referee, Craig Pawson, could not miss the offence and James Milner, unflustered, thumped in the resultant spot-kick. Klopp’s team go into the international break with a two-point advantage from Manchester City at the top. The initiative, for now, is theirs.

Ryan Babel equalises for Fulham. Photo: Glyn Kirk/Getty Images
Ryan Babel equalises for Fulham. Photo: Glyn Kirk/Getty Images

They would have craved a more comfortable afternoon’s work than this. Mané’s 11th goal in as many games had eased the visitors into their first half lead, Liverpool flicking a switch to snap out of the plod in central midfield and slice through their opponents. Andrew Robertson, such a menace down the left, had fed the Senegalese whose burst of pace took him into the penalty area with Fulham suddenly panicked, their attempt at defensive discipline having wavered. Roberto Firmino took up possession with André-Frank Zambo Anguissa failing to track Mané’s dart inside. The forward was unmarked to meet Firmino’s pull-back and convert crisply beyond Sergio Rico.

Fulham would actually retire at the interval relatively satisfied not to have sustained more damage for all that, up to then, Liverpool’s level of control had rarely wavered.

At times it was as if they were toying with their opponents, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Robertson constantly skipping down the flanks at pace, the former invariably pinging those trademark cross-field passes which spun deliciously off the greasy surface and stuck to his team-mate’s instep. There was energy aplenty through midfield while the front three, with Mané supplying the cutting edge, forever hinted at further reward. That the home side resisted was impressive given their own defensive frailties over much of their Premier League return.

Timothy Fosu-Mensah would smother Firmino’s back-heeled attempt, while Mané rose unchecked to guide Alexander-Arnold’s corner on to the bar with Sergio Rico beaten. The goalkeeper did well to claw away Virgil van Dijk’s header, steered back towards the far corner from Fabinho’s fine centre.

Sadio Mane is brought down for the Liverpool penalty. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Sadio Mane is brought down for the Liverpool penalty. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Yet the second goal which would have deflated the hosts failed to materialise, with Mohamed Salah a frustrated figure craving a chance of his own. The Egyptian’s seasonal tally may remain impressive, but he has managed only one goal in 11 games and nothing he tries at present is coming off. His clearest opportunity would come late on, with Sergio Rico summoning a save.

Yet, while their deficit was still slender, Fulham had retained conviction of their own for all that their leading scorer, Aleksandar Mitrovic, had been so utterly dwarfed by the imposing Van Dijk and even Joël Matip. Anguissa had seen their best effort saved by Alisson, but the Brazilian, out of nothing, would soon contrive to deliver up parity.

Milner’s first meaningful touch had been a horrible slice which had sent the ball looping awkwardly back towards Liverpool’s area, with Van Dijk, aware of Ryan Babel at his back, nodding towards his goalkeeper. Alisson might have gathered on the edge of his area but, unsure how close he was to exiting his box, slid in with his feet and managed only to play the ball to the on-rushing Babel. It duly ricocheted up for the Dutchman, who had scored 22 goals in 146 games for Liverpool, to tap almost apologetically into the empty net.

That was a shock to the system, a ridiculously unnecessary concession, though the speed of the visitors’ riposte was ruthless. They will spend the next two weeks basking in that two-point lead before City visit this arena upon the resumption of the league after the international break. This title race will have twists still to come. – Guardian

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