12 May 2013

Liverpool 3-1 Fulham

Goals:
Berbatov 33'
Sturridge 36' 62' 85'

An unfamiliar formation, lined up in a 3-6-1, and an end-of-season tempo led to Liverpool passing and possession without reward for the first half an hour, an unwelcome reminder of the toothlessness which was all too frequent at the start of the season.

That ended up leading to a Fulham goal against the run of play, another all-too-common occurrence which Liverpool's done well to avoid in recent months. Liverpool still struggle with crosses at the best of times, and when an arguably offside overlapping Sascha Riether was left open by Downing and Henderson, he placed a perfect ball in for Berbatov to nod home, finding space between Wisdom and Carragher with the latter waving for an offside flag that didn't come.

Déjà vu all over again. But déjà vu which didn't last long thanks to Daniel Sturridge. Fulham fans were still celebrating Berbatov's strike when Sturridge deftly controlled Wisdom's ball over the top, danced around Aaron Hughes, and rammed a shot over Schwarzer into the roof of the net. It was more proof that Liverpool's frequently more potent when Liverpool are more direct rather than ponderously trying to pass throw the defense. Which, to Rodgers' credit, is a lesson he's learned over the last few months. Fulham's opener was its first lead in 573 minutes of football. And it lasted all of three minutes.

The rest of the half saw similar to the opening half an hour, highlighted by another Fulham chance from another Riether cross, this time well defended by Wisdom, with Berbatov unable to get a shot on goal after getting in front of the young center-back.

Also to Rodgers' credit, he made a halftime change which markedly improved the side. Enrique replaced Wisdom – who hadn't done poorly – switching back to the default 4-2-3-1 formation with Downing returning to the right wing and Henderson alongside Lucas. And it nearly paid dividends immediately, as Enrique charged down the flank and crossed for Sturridge, who out-jumped Emanuelson but could only sky his free header straight up.

The tactical change completely changed the game, and Liverpool were well on top. The away side were finally able to get multiple players into the box; Coutinho was much more influential, combining well with Sturridge. The striker set up Brazilian's blast in the box, blocked by Hughes, with Shelvey heading the rebound narrowly wide, followed swiftly by a buccaneering run by Johnson around three defenders before a fourth luckily cut out the full-back's cutback. It seemed a matter of time before Liverpool got the go-ahead goal.

Of course, because it's still Liverpool's, they didn't make it easy on themselves. And then we saw the fine margins which separate victory from defeat, and the kind of decisions which make those margins. Fulham could have easily won a penalty on the hour when Ruiz crossed off Lucas' arm from a yard out after Liverpool couldn't clear a corner, waved away by Halsey for ball to hand. It was one of those "seem 'em given," especially when it's Liverpool. A minute later, Fulham should have won a free kick just outside the box when Coates apparently fouled Ruiz on the break, again waved off.

And then, just like that, Liverpool were ahead. A slalom counter down the pitch, Coutinho's slipping shot deflected straight into the path of a just-onside Sturridge, perfectly placed around Schwarzer from eight yards out. It's better to be lucky than good, and it's even better to be lucky and good.

Because, no matter that fortune, Liverpool again refused to make things easy for themselves, as the away side seemed determined to wasted multiple chances by inches. Liverpool could have scored the third goal five times over in the 20 minutes after taking the lead. Sturridge almost immediately got his hat-trick, squandering what looked his easiest chance after robbing Hangeland but then selfishly shooting straight at Fulham's keeper. Five minutes later, thinking only of that possible hat-trick, he again has an effort saved by Schwarzer with both Shelvey and Coutinho open for a tap-in. Shelvey slipped when shooting after controlling Downing's fierce early cross, deflected just wide of the near post with the rest of the goal gaping. Borini soon replaced Shelvey, but in the space of a minute, cannoned a shot off the woodwork after cutting inside from the left, then saw Schwarzer make another excellent save after Sturridge's back heel put him through on goal.

Last season, Fulham would have punished Liverpool's profligacy as so many other sides did. And they almost did today if not for Reina's heroics. Fine margins, and all. First, Reina parried Berbatov's shot after Henderson unbelievably passed the ball straight to him in Liverpool's half. His save from the resulting corner was even better – yes, Liverpool nearly conceded from a corner – somehow tipping Hughes' header around the post. And in the 84th minute, Riise, on as a substitute, was allowed a free kick from 25 yards out, rocketing a shot under the wall that Reina coolly smothered.

But a minute after that, Liverpool finally got that third, and Sturridge got his hat-trick: another incredible throughball from Coutinho, this one chipped with the outside of his foot, with Sturridge beating Schwarzer to the ball and chipping over the on-rushing keeper to nestle into the net. Game over, and with all the last season déjà vu exorcised.

Today saw the peaks and valleys that Daniel Sturridge provides. All three of his goals were outstanding, taken with both his left and right feet. He took seven shots and put five of them on target. He's the fastest to 10 Premiership goals in Liverpool history, needing just 13 games to reach the mark; it took both Torres and Fowler 18. He also cleverly set up outstanding openings for Borini and Downing thanks to smart back-heels when Liverpool were pushing for the needed third.

But he was anonymous until his opening goal – which we can partly blame on the unfamiliar formation – only noticed for wasting an excellent chance in the 26th. And there were those squandered opportunities after scoring his first then second goals. Still, if he's scoring those goals, tallying hat-tricks, not-quite-but-still-kinda winning matches singlehandedly, then it's easy to forgive the selfishness and the misses.

Of course, Liverpool's other January addition played a starring role, again the creative hub, again providing the assists – his fifth and sixth in 10 matches. No player created more chances, no player made more successful attacking third passes, and, surprisingly, no player made more tackles. And some credit goes to Rodgers for making the needed halftime changes, especially in bringing on Enrique, who vastly improved Liverpool's defense.

Today's win is Liverpool's fourth comeback win in the league after conceding the first goal, the third in the last two months. They had just one last season: a 3-1 win over Newcastle at the end of December. And it's the first time this season that Liverpool have won a league game by two goals. Liverpool not only showed the fortitude and resiliency needed to overhaul a setback, helped by mid-game tactical changes, they won a narrow game, scoring the crucial goal to seal the victory in the final minutes rather than hanging on by fingernails.

That's not happened often enough this season. We've rightfully gloated in romps over lesser opponents, the 3-0s, 4-0s, 5-0s, 5-2s, and 6-0s. Today's three points admittedly don't mean anything to Liverpool's league position, but the way those three points were earned mean very much to Liverpool's confidence and progression going forward.

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