PHIL THOMPSON sometimes bristles at the suggestion that the Liverpool he supervises in Gerard Houllier's absence are less than wholeheartedly cavalier. He must have enjoyed the awe-struck silence while they were scoring four goals at Leeds and six at Ipswich. But what can he expect when they win matches like this?
On the other hand, what is wrong with a team who can emerge triumphant from 10 of 16 away matches in the Premiership, the most recent on a ground where only Manchester United and Arsenal had hitherto taken all three points? The answer is that we shall be able to assess whether Liverpool have the balance right when they have completed their nine remaining fixtures, six of which are on the home soil where at times they have stung like butterflies.
They defended superbly against Fulham, Stephane Henchoz giving his customary masterclass as they protected an early lead obtained by Nicolas Anelka, and absorbed mounting pressure in the second half before the outcome was settled in the closing minutes. Steve Marlet scooped across the face of Jerzy Dudek's goal when he might have equalised and the substitute, Jari Litmannen, broke away to demonstrate the predator's art as he sneaked in front of the advancing Ed van der Sar before steering home the clincher from a tight angle.
Poor Fulham. Having been accorded the Highbury treatment the previous weekend, they could probably have done with a rest from the attentions of Frenchmen for a while (even though several are themselves French). But Liverpool, benching Michael Owen, started with Anelka, who has packed an inordinate amount of promise and disillusion into a life of just 22 years and 11 months and wasted little time in giving the riverside audience a painful illustration of his capabilities. He was nevertheless a more popular figure here than would have been the case in other quarters of the capital.
Public Enemy Number One was John Arne Riise, whom Fulham courted in vain last summer before he opted to join Liverpool. Showers of coins and cries of "Judas" are not in the Cottage style, let alone burned effigies, so the young Norwegian was able to smile ruefully as he rode a squall of mild booing during the warm-ups. Few Londoners took much interest in the fact that Dudek, fit again after a groin problem, had been restored in goal for Liverpool to the exclusion of that fine English prospect Chris Kirkland.
An interesting but not entirely shocking alteration to the Fulham side saw Andy Melville, the 32-year-old captain, move to the bench to the benefit of Abdes Ouaddou, the Moroccan making his Premiership debut alongside Alain Goma at the back. Since Fulham's promotion, Melville has found some attackers too sharp for him and the threat of Anelka and Emile Heskey was clearly something that concerned Jean Tigana. When Anelka breached Tigana's defence, however, it had less to do with pace than the striker's optimism.
Receiving the ball outside and to the right of a crowded penalty area, he took what appeared a strange decision to shoot and, duly, his attempt rebounded off Rufus Brevett. But it went straight back to Anelka, who reacted quicker than Goma and, switching to his left foot to make optimum use of the space that had opened up for him, drove for the far corner; Van Der Sar, diving low, got a hand to the ball but could not keep it out. It was Anelka's second goal in consecutive Premiership matches, after his equaliser in the Merseyside derby last weekend.
Fulham did not take it lying down and were unlucky still to be behind at the interval. How their fans cursed the remarkable Henchoz's latest entry for tackle of the season, which denied Marlet after the striker had been nudged goalside of his marker in the penalty area by Luis Boa Morte. How they wished some of Boa Morte's pace could have been temporarily converted to composure when, fed by Louis Saha, he wildly sliced too high. And how they admired Saha's wheel and volley from 20 yards, which kissed the crossbar on its way over.
Boa Morte was thwarted by Dudek's outstretched hand before Fulham lost Sean Davis, the midfielder taking a heavy knock and giving way to Lee Clark, who had himself been out of action since mid-December. The Fulham storm had, to a large extent, subsided by the interval and for the second half Tigana ordered his wide midfielders, Boa Morte and Steed Malbranque, to change flanks. Soon Boa Morte was flying down the left, heading for the byline and falling under the challenge of Abel Xavier; rising again, he was shown the yellow card for the offence known as "simulation".
But not a semblance of a goal materialised, not at Dudek's end anyway - Van Der Sar had to thwart a chip from the increasingly influential Danny Murphy - before Marlet made his single, costly, miss.
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