Familiar storyline: Liverpool fail to convert chances when dominant, leading to more points dropped in a game Liverpool bossed. New plot twist: Refereeing decisions punish Liverpool even more than usual, culminating in a harsh red on Spearing that gave Fulham the advantage needed to take all three points.
Despite Liverpool's upper hand until the red card, we got an initial answer as to how the team will cope without Lucas. Not well.
Liverpool started in a 4-3-3 formation, with Suarez roaming and Bellamy staying quite wide on the right. After an early scare, with Reina coming out to block Dembele's shot after Ruiz' pass bisected Liverpool's back line, patient possession led to early Carroll and Henderson chances, both unluckily spurned. Carroll saw his diving, prodded attempt on Suarez's cut-back hit too close to Schwarzer in the 8th minute, Henderson hit the inside of the inside of the far post after bursting into the box 20 minutes later. Again unable to translate superiority into tangible results, Liverpool's increasing frustration allowed Fulham into the game late in the first half, often conceding possession by looking for overly-ambitious cross-field passes in a futile attempt to open up space somewhere.
Fulham's marginal ascendancy paid off with three marginally threatening shots from distance around the 40th minute: one saved, one well wide, and one tamely deflected to Reina. Those opportunities resulted from a gap between midfield and defense. You know, where Lucas usually draws a line in the sand in blood.
Spearing's instinct to play further forward, almost always partnered with Lucas under Dalglish, didn't help matters. It rendered Zamora fairly irrelevant as both center-backs kept him under close watch, but allowed what Dempsey and Dembele are best at. Liverpool were eventually punished by one, even if Reina's flub was more culpable and Spearing was long off the field by that point. The young midfielder will suffer enough criticism for his red card, and probably feels worse than any of us; I'm not necessarily criticizing his play, just where he played. He made five interceptions before going off. Three came in or near the center circle. These hitches are sadly expected when losing as crucial a player as Lucas. And, admittedly, those first half chances came to nothing and Spearing didn't do poorly. He's just not Lucas. Lucas didn't used to be Lucas either.
Liverpool pummeled Fulham for half an hour after the restart, still unable to break the damned breakthrough, cursed by poor finishing, good keeping, and strange decisions before the turning-point dismissal. It's hard to argue against cosmic balance when the universe refuses to proof otherwise; the closest comparison to Spearing's sending-off is Rodwell's in the derby – both harsh but given because the referee saw two feet with raised studs off the ground even though the ball was won and contact was minimal. And now Liverpool's without its lone back-up defensive midfielder for three games unless the FA demonstrates an unlikely act of charity. But it is the holiday season, after all.
Fulham's onslaught began soon after, despite Dalglish immediately making changes, bringing on Kuyt and Downing for Carroll and Bellamy, switching to a 4-1-3-1. Dempsey cannoned a curler off the bar with Reina stranded, while Dembele shot too close to the keeper and then wide. But Liverpool had chances of their own: the woodwork re-reared its awful head, with Downing's blast when surrounded by three pushed onto the post by Schwarzer, while Adam placed a left-footer just wide after Liverpool went behind. But a Fulham back-breaker always looked likely, and that it came from a Reina howler reinforces the notion that when everything goes wrong, absolutely everything goes wrong: he saved Murphy's shot after the midfielder cut in and around Johnson, but spilled it straight to the first-to-react American less than two yards out.
Now seems a good time to recount the other questionable incidents. Dempsey was lucky to stay on the pitch after a retaliatory head-butt on Bellamy in the 48th, as Friend weakly booked both. Adam could have won a penalty instead of a free kick when felled by Senderos on the break in the 59th, right on the edge of the area. Suarez won just three free kicks when he could have had 10; another referee's subscribed to the media's narrative of the Uruguayan's malicious cheating. The same player should have been ruled onside when cleverly "scoring" in the 66th, level with Hangeland. We passed the point of coincidence into the realm of suspiciousness. Not unlike when Liverpool lost this fixture in 2009-10, with Lee Mason handing out two dismissals in a 1-3 embarrassment.
But regardless of those multiple, infuriating moments, Liverpool didn't look anywhere close to comprehensively fluid and yet again, Liverpool couldn't get the necessary goal from anyone. I've defended Carroll, and will most likely do so in the future, but today was not a good argument for his inclusion. His movement was decent, he tracked back, held up play – all those little things you hope for which make the icing on the complete player cake. But there was no cake. There was no there there. He did not score and did not win his battle against the opposing center-back. The focal point of a 4-3-3 instead of dropping deep to link possession between long balls and Suarez (as in previous games) allowed Hangeland to do what he does best, a brute mix of trench and aerial warfare in the penalty box, with the added bonus of the tactics moving Suarez further from goal. That combined with Liverpool's patience in the early stages, letting Fulham get back, settle into position, and defend like Hodgson was still staring vacantly from the sidelines played into Fulham's strengths rather than exploiting weaknesses demonstrated in last season's 5-2 mauling.
Maxi's relegation to the bench will receive the most howls, understandably so, but there are multiple questions about the line-up and tactics: the decision to switch formation, the decision to push both Bellamy and Suarez surprisingly wide (the former more than the latter), not including Liverpool's best crosser when playing Carroll as a spearhead (and only subbing him on when taking Carroll off). All these questions demonstrate just how important Lucas is and how much had and has to be changed to cope with his long-term absence.
But at the same time, despite all those questions and concerns, once again, Liverpool could and should have won if not for poor finishing, the woodwork, and some controversial calls. Just like that, all the good feelings from Chelsea and City evaporate and we've regressed to post-Swansea/Norwich/Sunderland/Stoke hand-wringing.
Fun times. As if anything else should be expected.