Finnan Skrtel Hyypia Riise
Pennant Lucas Mascherano Benayoun
Liverpool made a number of expected changes (eight from the previous match) and went back to the 4-4-2, with neither Gerrard nor Torres involved (Torres was on the bench, but was never needed). But we still weren’t treated to a glimpse of some of the young players, with Insua, Plessis, and Nemeth not even in the team.
Fulham started out the more dangerous, with Liverpool taking time to settle and Clint Dempsey heavily involved, but Hyypia, Skrtel and Mascherano were solid in the middle. Liverpool didn’t work out a shot until the 14th minute, with Crouch heading wide from Pennant’s threatening cross, but three minutes later the away side opened the scoring, arguably against the run of play.
And it was Pennant who broke the deadlock, tallying his second of the season (and third in a Liverpool shirt) with a goal that showed what many have been looking for from him. He continued his run to beat Hangeland for pace, got into the box, and beat Keller with an excellent shot inside the near post.
The goal completely took the air out of Fulham’s sails. Fulham’s heads seemed to drop, and Liverpool increasingly took hold of possession and tempo, with Pennant a frequent outlet on the right. Both Healy and McBride had half chances against the run of play, but neither could make solid contact from a tight angle.
But despite Liverpool controlling proceedings, they weren’t putting the opposition’s goal under enough pressure. And we’d too often seen that a team can be punished when a second isn’t scored.
That Fulham failed to come out for the second half much stronger is probably a sign that many have accepted the fate of relegation. Carragher came on for Hyypia after the break, with Sami suffering a clash of heads in the first half, but it was just as likely a precautionary measure with the match on Tuesday.
With Liverpool still unable to turn superiority into a second goal, Fulham began to up the pressure around the 60th minute, and Dempsey had two headed chances in the 64th and 68th minutes, missing the target with both. This isn’t a knock on Carragher by any means, but I doubt it’s a coincidence that Fulham won more headers after Hyypia left the field.
However, Crouch soon sealed the game in the 70th minute, controlling Pennant’s throughball and steering a low shot past Keller, exactly when Liverpool needed a goal to stem any building Fulham momentum.
The home side had all the chances in the final 20 minutes, with the best coming in the 75th when Reina made an excellent stop on Danny Murphy and two more in stoppage time, but Liverpool held on for the clean sheet and a deserved victory to throw in the faces of the likes of Gary Megson and Neil Warnock, who claimed that Liverpool fielding a weakened side (a weakened side full of established internationals, mind you) cheapened the Premier League.
First and foremost, Mascherano deserves man of the match for the 72 minutes he spent on the field, removed in favor of Alonso after the second goal assured victory. He was absolutely everywhere in the first half, and repeatedly prevented Fulham from breaking through or stringing passes together. The only knock on him was a couple of sloppy passes across the field where Liverpool could have been punished, but he's forced to spread the play more when both Gerrard and Alonso are absent.
Masch was also aided by a steady performance by Lucas, who was probably Liverpool’s best passer and delivered an assist exactly where Pennant wanted it to score. Hyypia and Skrtel were also imperious in central defense, especially when needed in the first half. And Pennant, with a goal and assist, also impressed, although there were times when he gave the ball away too cheaply or the trick didn’t come off, which can be par for the course. But those things are much easier to overlook when Pennant’s chipping in with goals.
Eight points ahead of 5th place with three matches to go probably seals Champions League qualification, although Everton’s still not mathematically out of it. Even though many of those on the field tonight won’t feature against Chelsea, Liverpool’s continued momentum in the Premiership has to help them in Europe. And despite knocks to both Hyypia and Mascherano, both looked like they should be available on Tuesday.
Roll on Chelsea.