Johnson Carragher Skrtel Flanagan
Kuyt Meireles Maxi
Maxi 1' 7' 70'
After months of anger, disappointment and regrets, now we're wishing the season wasn't about to end. Funny old game.
For the second time in three matches, Liverpool scores five and it's Maxi with a hat-trick. From out-of-favor squad player to absolute goal machine. 32 seconds into the match and the Argentinean was on the score sheet. Suarez – the epicenter of everything wonderful – was the catalyst, setting the tone immediately. Lucas' inch-perfect throughball split Baird and Hughes, releasing the Uruguayan into acres of space. His low cross was deflected on target by Salcido, and Schwarzer's sliding kick save pushed the ball straight to Maxi.
Less than six minutes later, Liverpool and Maxi had a second, a back post volley from Johnson's cross, released over the top by Lucas, with the goal-scorer left wide open by Baird (who played Johnson onside). A third in the 16th, Schwarzer's unforgivable mistake allowing Kuyt's shot through his legs, seemed to announce game over before all the Fulham fans had entered Craven Cottage.
But after 30 rampant, flawless minutes, Fulham finally gained a foothold. Johnson's intervention in the 34th, clearing Dempsey's effort from a corner out of the goalmouth, prevented an early lifeline, but shots from Dempsey and Sidwell were the only goal-mouth action for the rest of the half.
Zamora's introduction after the interval, in place of right winger Simon Davies, nearly prompted a remarkable comeback. An injury to Meireles – yet another hamstring concern – didn't help matters, but the home side were on the front foot for 20 minutes after the restart. Zamora's height and aerial ability flummoxed and bamboozled Skrtel; Fulham came close thrice before Zamora easily held off the Slovakian and set up Dembele for a fine low strike which sent Reina into angry hysterics. It was the first open-play goal Liverpool conceded since March 6.
Fulham remained the more threatening, invoking fears over away form and allowing comebacks as happened all too often under the previous manager. But Maxi reasserted his hero status, easing nerves with the best goal he's scored for the club, fortuitously picking up possession in Fulham's half and striding forward to unleash an unstoppable shot past Schwarzer with his "weaker" foot when defenders backed off.
Six minutes later, Suarez got his goal, latching on to a flawless, nigh-on impossible through ball from Shelvey before rounding Schwarzer. A screaming consolation from Sidwell, not long after the human victory cigar Joe Cole replaced the hat-trick hero, reduced arrears when Skrtel's clearing header fell to the midfielder. Yet Liverpool still finished the stronger, and were unlucky not to get a sixth to fittingly mark Carragher's 666th appearance, with Shelvey, Spearing, and Kuyt denied a notch in the bed post.
That Liverpool conceded twice is obviously cause for concern, but yet another five-goal romp slightly eases the pain. Once again, Maxi – of all players! – is the match-ball winning headline maker, but Luis Suarez was indescribably brilliant. Every time the ball's at his feet, he's capable of magic. Hangeland and Hughes were more terrified of the Uruguayan than Vidic ever was of Torres. A goal was the absolute least he deserved today.
Once again, Liverpool won the game with pass and move football. The same front six started for the third-straight match, as Carroll didn't travel because of his knee injury, but the formation has been different in each game. Birmingham saw a 4-4-2 diamond, Newcastle the "usual" 4-2-2-2, while today's was best described as 4-2-3-1, with Kuyt ostensibly on the right and Meireles then Shelvey lurking menacingly behind Suarez. But both Lucas and Spearing joined the attack at will. Liverpool aren't staid and static, as they always were under Hodgson and all-too-frequently were under Rafa. This team is fluid, flexible, and perpetually dangerous. They never stop pressing and never stop running. And that's with a vast list of players currently injured.
Unbeaten in five, outscoring the opposition 17-3, demonstrates what this side is capable of. Wins like the last three make it incredibly hard to keep hopes for next season from flying into the stratosphere. But, despite today's jubilation, we can't get ahead of ourselves. There is a clear foundation here. There is a clear team here. It is wonderful to be optimistic for a change. But there's obviously still work to be done – both goals conceded prove that by themselves. Thankfully, I'm positive Dalglish knows that, and will ensure the players also know that.