Unable to shake off the poor home form that has held them back throughout a disappointing season, Liverpool failed yesterday to put any real daylight between themselves and the other challengers for the Premiership's valuable fourth place.
Newcastle and Aston Villa, only one and two points behind respectively, have every incentive to do well when they meet at Villa Park this afternoon.
Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier had complained that his players were leaning too heavily on the inspirational Steven Gerrard and urged them to lighten the load on their young captain. There was not much response, though, until the second half, when Harry Kewell hit a post and Gerrard, of all people, missed a penalty.
Trying to avoid losing two home games in a week, Liverpool made two attacking changes. Out, from the side which lost 1-0 here to Charlton five days earlier, went Emile Heskey and El Hadji-Diouf and in came Bruno Cheyrou and Vladimir Smicer.
Fulham, who were on the wrong end of a seven-goal thriller against Blackburn, also made a couple of changes, but because of injury. Ian Pearce replaced Zat Knight in central defence and Bobby Petta came into the midfield for Sean Davis.
Liverpool's alterations nearly yielded early dividends, the two recalled players, Cheyrou and Smicer, combining to trouble Fulham goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar in the 12th minute. Cheyrou supplied the pass, a square one on the edge of the area, but Smicer's shot was nowhere near fierce enough to beat Van der Sar. Generally speaking, though, the home side's first-half attempts to break Fulham down were disappointingly laboured.
As ever, Gerrard was Liverpool's most powerful and imaginative influence and kept probing away at the Fulham defence with accurate through passes from central midfield. His colleagues ought to have made something of a dreadful mix-up outside the penalty area between Van der Sar and Alain Goma as they converged in an attempt to prevent Michael Owen reaching the ball. Instead it all came to nothing.
Although Fulham adopted a more attacking stance than expected, with Luis Boa Morte playing up front alongside new goalscoring discovery Collins John instead of in a five-man midfield, they did not threaten the Liverpool goal seriously until the 29th minute. Then a break down the right by Moritz Volz saw the full-back clip the bar with a shot deflected by the challenging Stephane Henchoz.
The longer the first half went on, the more Fulham came into the game. In the 39th minute Boa Morte turned Sami Hyypia quite beautifully before unleashing a left-footed shot that Jerzy Dudek, taken by surprise, deflected over his bar almost by accident. The visitors should certainly have scored, too, in a concerted attack shortly before the interval.
A rare mistake by Gerrard allowed Steed Malbranque to make a break down the right and move the ball on to Boa Morte. He wrongfooted the Liverpool defence with a reverse pass which left the goal at John's mercy. Dudek came off his line quickly to block the striker's shot, but the ball ran loose in a goalmouth scramble and John Arne Riise had to clear off the line.
The second half ought to have started well for Liverpool, who were awarded a penalty when Petta was adjudged to have handled the headed clearance with which Fulham repelled a Gerrard free-kick. It looked a harsh decision, but justice was waiting to be done. With Owen standing down as penalty-taker, Gerrard took responsibility and struck the ball hard and true, but Van der Sar got down well to his right to save.
It looked as though strong words had been spoken in the Liverpool dressing room at half-time because there was a great deal more urgency about their play after the interval.
Twice Kewell went close to scoring, notably when he lashed a left-footer against a post. Fulham, however, remained dangerous on the break, as Boa Morte demonstrated with an elusive dribble, then a cross. Only a desperate late challenge by Jamie Carragher stopped Malbranque from converting the centre into a goal.
Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Riise, Smicer (Diouf 76), Hamann, Gerrard, Kewell (Heskey 76), Cheyrou (Baros 60), Owen. Subs Not Used: Murphy, Luzi Bernardi.
Fulham: Van der Sar, Volz, Pearce, Goma, Bocanegra (Inamoto 77), Malbranque, Legwinski, Djetou, Petta (Rehman 89), Boa Morte, John (McBride 74).
Subs Not Used: Crossley, Hayles.
Booked: Bocanegra, John, Goma.
Ref: S Bennett (Kent).
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