It takes an awful lot to dampen the spirits of the Anfield crowd just days before a cup final date at Wembley. The very fact that Liverpool, not only achieved that, but also saw their efforts in a lacklustre 1-0 defeat to Fulham greeted with audible disapproval from the stands at the final whistle, epitomises the disappointment that has defined this Premier League season.
This weekend’s FA Cup Final encounter with Chelsea was always going to be at the forefront in the minds of players and supporters alike. That was certainly reflected in a starting line-up which saw nine changes from the weekend victory over Norwich City. Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Pepe Reina were amongst those omitted from the squad altogether.
But any hope that this match could still prove to be something of a Wembley send-off party was cooled in the opening minutes. Martin Skrtel turned the ball into his own net for the only goal of the game. And any remnants of high-spirits never looked like resurfacing thereafter.
As an opportunity to rest key players ahead of the final, this may have been viewed as a success. But if this was supposed to be in someway a chance to allow some fringe players an opportunity to impress, or an audition for places in the starting line-up at Wembley, very few points were scored.
Youth and inexperience is barely an excuse. Plenty of experience remained in the Liverpool team despite the absentees and plenty of money has been invested in the players that started.
The decision to pack the substitutes bench with 5 defensive players, with Stewart Downing the solitary experienced, attacking player, also left few options to refresh a game which was heading away from Liverpool from the moment that Fulham took an early, if fortunate, lead.
In fact, the only point at which Liverpool fans were stirred to rise from their seats was the sight of 17-year-old, Rahem Sterling entering the field, at the expense of, the dreadful, Dirk Kuyt, for a 15 minute cameo.
Fulham, for their part, offered no great promise. Although, as we have come to learn this season, visiting sides are not necessarily required to produce a performance of any great verve in order to stand a chance of departing Anfield with maximum points.
Skrtel was perhaps unfortunate to turn John Arne Riise’s left wing cross beyond his own goalkeeper for the only goal of the game. Although better communication with stand-in ‘keeper, Doni, may have averted the situation.
Despite the momentum gained from an impressive victory over Norwich, the number of changes to the Liverpool team meant that the Reds were never able to carry that into this game. So much so, that Liverpool rarely looked capable of rallying for a fight back.
The Reds lacked any threat on the flanks; whilst the midfield of Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing consistently struggled to retain possession. Even Jonjo Shelvey, who looked lively before the break, was abject in the second half.
The visitors looked more likely to extend their advantage and Pavel Pogrebnyak was denied by Doni, following Clint Dempsey’s chip over the top of the Liverpool defence.
Kuyt shot wide from Liverpool’s first genuine chance. Whilst Brede Hangeland had to clear Shelvey’s effort off the line with Mark Schwarzer beaten. The Norwegian also denied Maxi Rodriguez with an important tackle in the second half and Schwarzer also saved from Carroll’s header.
To his credit, Andy Carroll toiled throughout but to no avail. Carroll was dominant in the air and held the ball up well at times, yet he was desperately short of support. We had to wait until the closing minutes of the first half for the Reds to deliver a ball of any quality into the Fulham penalty area.
Alex Kacaniklic, a former Liverpool academy product, often offered Fulham’s greatest threat. Whilst Alexander Frei and Dempsey both missed chances to put the game beyond their hosts in the second half.
So Fulham became the third side in just a few weeks to earn a landmark victory at Anfield. The West-Londoners claiming their first ever away win against the Reds in the top-flight. Seemingly gone are the days when Anfield was a genuine fortress.
It may still prove true that, if Liverpool secure their second trophy of the season on Saturday, this season will be viewed as a success. However, Dalglish perhaps now find himself in a situation were he simply has to achieve just that, or risk endangering his very future at Anfield
Man of the Match: Alexander Doni
Tempting to award it to Rahem Sterling despite his fleeting cameo. But, of the players who began the game, Doni was perhaps the only one who could escape with any credit.
Liverpool: Doni, Kelly, Skrtel, Coates, Aurelio (Enrique 65), Spearing, Shelvey, Henderson (Downing 46), Maxi, Kuyt (Sterling 76), Carroll.
Subs not used: Jones, Carragher, Flanagan, Robinson.