Benìtez shows his strength before moment of truth

Attention quickly turned from Liverpool's stroll to yet another Champions League semi-final against Chelsea and Rafael Benítez was asked whether he, like many watching the English game, missed Jose Mourinho. "You might, but not me," came the response, forced through a smile. "I have enough things to do at Liverpool now. I don't need to be ... "

His answer trailed away but it is fair to assume the lack of the usual public spat with the opposing manager in the build-up to tomorrow's first leg was a weight off the Spaniard's mind. The personality clashes tend to take place in the Liverpool boardroom these days rather than the dugouts, even when Chelsea travel north.

In Mourinho's absence, and with Fulham's considerable help, Benítez has arguably enjoyed the perfect build-up to the latest collision with Chelsea, title challengers again, in continental competition. This victory left the Merseysiders a point adrift of guaranteeing qualification for the Champions League, with winnable games to come.

The corresponding fixture last year prompted furore. Liverpool's minds were on the European Cup final and they made nine changes and were duly beaten by a Fulham side who eventually survived by a point, an outcome recalled with acrimony on Saturday morning by Neil Warnock, whose Sheffield United team in consequence slipped from the Premier League. Liverpool also made eight changes here but the result and resolve on show sapped any intrigue from this occasion and the closest Benítez came to being perturbed was in revealing he would be instructing his lawyers over Warnock's comments.

This is a stronger squad than a year ago, although Fulham also appear considerably weaker. They never came close to eclipsing Javier Mascherano in the centre of midfield, the Argentinian setting the tempo and maintaining it through snapped tackles and simple crisp passes. Fulham were flustered and panicked around his metronomic presence, any hope generated by the previous week's first away win of the term at Reading quickly evaporating. Only when he departed, his legs bruised by the home side's desperate lunges and with his team two goals up, did Fulham threaten to find reward.

In truth, the visitors always sported the air of a side toying with befuddled opponents. Liverpool's players were, in effect, attempting to prove they merited a place in tomorrow's first leg. There was endeavour and commitment but, given that Jamie Carragher, Mascherano, José Reina and Martin Skrtel are surely first choices, only Lucas Leiva, recovering from a sloppy start to torment Fulham, and Peter Crouch may have given Benítez cause to ponder his options. The Brazilian set up Jermaine Pennant for his battered opener. Crouch, squirting a shot through a hapless Kasey Keller, completed a comfortable success.

"We were always going to treat this game seriously because it was important to make sure we kept up a big gap between ourselves and Everton [in fifth place], and it's now eight points," said Crouch. "Although that doesn't guarantee us fourth place, with just three games to go it takes a bit of the pressure off, which helps us concentrate on the Champions League.

"It's going to be different for us having to play at home first but we showed against Arsenal in the quarter-finals we could really get at teams at Anfield. I don't expect the same sort of match against Chelsea, as the circumstances are different, but there's no reason why we can't go out and be positive."

That was precisely the attitude required of the home side at Craven Cottage but positive intent matters little when defending is as slapdash as that offered by Fulham. Their backline floundered, caught square too often when passes were slipped in between flustered centre-halves. Brede Hangeland is a giant of a man but his reputation was diminished by this display. Behind him Keller's form appeared to collapse, all confidence in those around him apparently stripped. "I don't think Kasey will be happy with Kasey today," said Roy Hodgson, the Fulham manager.

His club are slipping back into the Championship and relegation will be confirmed next weekend if they lose at Manchester City and other results go against them. Hodgson inherited a side short of class and has done his best to revive fortunes but this would have proved a task beyond most. There is quality in their ranks but it is shrunken at present and life outside the top flight may not suit them. "People regard fighting spirit as players flying around the field smashing into others and knocking them over but we aren't that kind of team," added Hodgson. Life in the second tier may prove something of an eye-opener.

Man of the match Javier Mascherano

This was the Argentinian's first Premier League appearance since his unwise protestations and consequent red card at Old Trafford, but he dictated the pace of this contest with an exemplary performance

Best moment The tackles rattled in, the midfielder taking as many on the shins as he dished out, but Fulham could not match his mastery

Who staked a claim?

Lucas Leiva

The Brazilian midfielder has an onerous task to shunt out Javier Mascherano or Xabi Alonso from the team to face Chelsea tomorrow, but he impressed at Craven Cottage with neat passes and busy industry. Assist liberated Jermaine Pennant to score the opening goal.

Verdict Unlikely starter, but at head of queue on the bench

Peter Crouch

The striker started against Arsenal in the quarter-final second leg but would expect to be replaced by Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. But scored second goal in three starts and linked play effectively.

Verdict Useful option from bench

Steve Finnan

Injury and form have pushed the full-back down the pecking order but if Sami Hyypia is out may be used for his attacking strength, evident on Saturday, with Jamie Carragher in the centre.

Verdict Hyypia holds the key

Kasey Keller, Brede Hangeland, Aaron Hughes, Paul Konchesky, Paul Stalteri, Jimmy Bullard, Danny Murphy (Leon Andreasen, 78), Clint Dempsey, Simon Davies, David Healy (Erik Nevland, 76), Brian McBride (Diomansy Kamara, 81)

Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Sami Hyypia (Jamie Carragher, 46), Steve Finnan, Martin Skrtel, John Arne Riise, Javier Mascherano (Xabi Alonso, 72), Lucas Leiva, Jermaine Pennant, Yossi Benayoun, Peter Crouch, Andriy Voronin (Fabio Aurelio, 82)

Copyright - The Guardian

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