26 January 2011

Liverpool 1-0 Fulham

Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Gerrard Poulsen
Kuyt Meireles Maxi

Pantsil (og) 52'

Far too closely-contested for comfort, especially during a nerve-wracking final 15 minutes, but still enough for a win. Fulham had enough chances to take something from the game – more than the home side – and Liverpool were clinging on by the end. It's fitting that Hodgson's old team hung on to beat Hodgson's old old team by hoofing. At the same time, Liverpool continued to improve in regards to pressing, possession and overall play until those frightening final minutes. That the deciding goal came from a comical scramble shouldn't obscure the fact that Liverpool should have been up a goal after six minutes.

The referees, specifically the linesmen, were always going to be a talking point after this week's Sky-induced controversy. Today's male linesman incorrectly raised his flag when Meireles put Torres through, with the Spaniard slotting past Stockdale. Four minutes later, the reserve keeper's heroics kept the scoreline blank, wonderfully sprawling to prevent Meireles' diving header. Taking one of those two early chances could have led to a different game, as happened when Torres scored the first half goal at Wolves. Johnson, continuing to adapt at left back, was also a frequent threat, demanding another Stockdale save after a 25th minute run and creating a close-range chance for Torres in the 33rd.

Even though Fulham hasn't won at Anfield in the last 29 matches, they've been hard to beat over the last few seasons, earning 0-0s in their last two visits. It was little surprise that the Cottagers caused problems. Reina was forced in action twice in the 29th minute, stopping Dempsey's blast before keeping Dembele's shot out, both aided by errors from Kelly and Skrtel respectively, demonstrating the back line's continued instability.

Liverpool's ability to keep possession and blunt Fulham certainly wasn't helped by Lucas' absence. For the second straight game, Poulsen didn't play badly. There's nothing wrong with his football brain or positional sense, but his complete lack of pace leaves Liverpool susceptible, and Lucas' steady head, ball retention, and tracking of runs were missed.

Seven minutes after the interval, it was Fulham punished for a succession of costly mistakes. Dempsey gave the ball away to Torres, whose deflected shot caromed off the post. Meireles charging in prompted a comedic scramble which ended with Pantsil somehow slicing a clearance out of Stockdale's hands backwards into his own net. After the calamities suffered so far this season, Liverpool's recent play deserves that fortune.

But, unable to get the crucial second, Fulham pressure pushed Liverpool back to the deep defensive line that's often been the side's downfall. Chances on the break came few and far between – most notably when Hughes somehow got back to prevent Meireles centering for Torres – and Liverpool ended the match pinned to the top of their 18-yard box, happy to hoof clear. Fulham twice threatened on corners just after the 80th minute, with Reina saving Hughes' header and Meireles shinning Hangeland's subsequent header off the line. Five minutes later, Liverpool again failed to grasp the finer points of set play defense, but Dembele couldn't finish Dempsey's flick-on from Murphy's free kick.

All that matters is that Liverpool held on. The Reds haven't kept consecutive clean sheets since beating West Brom and Birmingham in September – wins over Bolton and Chelsea were bracketed by conceding against Napoli – and haven't won consecutive league matches since those Bolton and Chelsea victories almost three months ago. While seeing Liverpool regress as the match went on isn't a positive development, it's been quite a while since hanging on in such a fashion actually worked.

Lucas' absence and ineffective performances from Liverpool's wingers led to today's problems. That Gerrard was anonymous on his return, still in a deeper CM role, again begs the question of his best position, but Meireles continued his fine form as the furthest forward of three central midfielders. Both Johnson and Kelly got forward as often as possible to add some width, with Johnson far more dangerous. The 'make-shift' left back, Meireles, and Reina all merit being named man of the match.

Five games in 17 days caught up with Liverpool and the Reds still took all three points, now up to the heady heights of 7th place. Against Wolves, Liverpool continued to improve on its performances and finally got a deserved result. Today, Liverpool didn't perform as hoped but still got the result. As United's disgustingly proven so far this season, that's all that counts. Winning often becomes habit no matter how the games are won.

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