What a time to score your first goal in the Premiership. Clint Dempsey came off the bench early in the second half, gave Fulham a new edge and then fired the winner that pointed his side towards survival. It was their first victory in 11 matches. They had been sinking like a stone, but all that was forgotten as fans went wild at the final whistle.
A shadow Liverpool side provided many anxious moment, notably when Craig Bellamy was on the ball. Fulham owed a large debt to the awareness and agility of Antti Niemi, but such was their wholehearted spirit and commitment who was to say they did not deserve the points?
Rafael Benitez, with the Champions League final uppermost in his mind, made the expected sweeping changes after victory over Chelsea. Of those who started in midweek only Jose Reina and Jermaine Pennant kicked off here. The inclusion of penalty shoot-out hero Reina was something of a surprise, with the young Italian Daniele Padelli widely expected to have come in.
Lawrie Sanchez, who restored Vincenzo Montella to his team, had no such leeway in such a huge match. Twice early on Fulham's supporters were on the edge of their seats as Bellamy strode forward to force diving saves from Niemi.
Reina, too, excelled when he hurled himself at a wicked cross from Tomasz Radzinski to force the ball away. But there were further ominous signs for Fulham when Pennant picked out Bellamy with his cross and it needed a smart interception by Papa Bouba Diop to prevent Bellamy firing in another effort.
But they were unlucky not to go ahead when Montella's spectacular bicycle kick from a far post position took a deflection and thudded against the post. Bellamy, however continued to pose big problems, running on to Robbie Fowler's pass and whipping a cross-shot not far wide of the far upright. When he turned provider, working his way around the back of the defence and crossing towards Pennant, Carlos Bocanegra got to the ball first to clear.
Then there was a half-chance for Simon Davies from Sami Hyypia's poor defensive header out, but he scuffed his shot. But Fowler's failure to convert Pennant's cross represented another Liverpool chance passed up
Fulham's response, after Montella was replaced by Dempsey, was Diop's 30-yard free-kick straight into the arms of Reina.
When Diop committed another foul soon after being booked, the referee, Steve Bennett, left him in no doubt that next time he would be off.
There were times when Bellamy and Niemi seemed to be conducting their own private duel. The goalkeeper was called into action again when Bellamy turned and drove in - and again he was equal to touching the ball aside.
But it was Fulham who made the breakthrough after 65 minutes. Dempsey had been an influential substitute and he was involved in the build-up that had Liam Rosenior scampering down the right flank. The full-back crossed and Dempsey gleefully swept it past Reina.
Liverpool gave the injury-dogged Harry Kewell his first outing of the season and with his first meaningful contribution he almost levelled, drilling a shot through a crowd of players and just wide of the far post.
Man of the Match - Clint Dempsey
The Fulham striker will never score a more vital goal. Nor will he have worked so hard for it. Dempsey was introduced at a time when his side were struggling for a breakthrough and made all the difference with sheer purpose.
69' Dempsey 1-0
Antti Niemi, Carlos Bocanegra, Philippe Christanval, Zat Knight, Liam Rosenior, Michael Brown, Simon Davies, Papa Bouba Diop, Brian McBride (Heidar Helguson), Vincenzo Montella (Clint Dempsey), Tomasz Radzinski (Moritz Volz)
Jose Manuel Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Sami Hyypia, Emiliano Insua (Steve Finnan), Gabriel Paletta, Xabi Alonso, Mark Gonzalez (Harry Kewell), Jermaine Pennant (Nabil El Zhar), Mohamed Sissoko, Craig Bellamy, Robbie Fowler
Referee: Bennett, S
Venue: Craven Cottage
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