Liverpool’s unbeaten run was brought to a shuddering halt last night as a late Clint Dempsey goal saw Fulham plunder three undeserved points at Craven Cottage. The Reds came into the match having won each of their last six away matches and unbeaten in their last eleven game in all competitions. A mix of bad luck, bad refereeing and an untimely mistake conspired to turn them to defeat, however, at the start of a crucial month.
With six very winnable games ahead in December, Liverpool were looking to get their month off to the best start with three points at the scene of perhaps their best performance last season. They did so without perhaps their player of the season, Lucas Leiva, however, and it was to be his replacement, Jay Spearing, upon whom so much of the post match talk was centred.
Liverpool were asserting their dominance over the game, and seemingly moving ever closer to finally opening the scoring, when in the 72nd minute Spearing thundered into a tackle on Moussa Dembélé, winning the ball cleanly before being sent off by referee Kevin Friend, much to his, his teammates’ and the fans’ consternation.
With the extra space afforded them by their numerical advantage, Fulham began to take the game to Liverpool. Clint Dempsey and Dembélé, both of whom had been a threat throughout, came more to the fore and eventually it was the former, making the most of an error from Pepe Reina, who tucked away the winning goal with just five minutes left.
Much of the day before the game had seen Liverpool fans calling for Maxi Rodríguez, hero of last season’s win at Craven Cottage and of the two recent wins at Chelsea, to be given another game in the starting line up. Their hopes were dashed, however, as Kenny Dalglish chose to field Craig Bellamy, Andy Carroll and Luis Suárez in a front three, with the trio of Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing sat behind them.
The game started with Liverpool in control of the ball, but it was Fulham who fashioned the first chance, some neat interplay between Bryan Ruíz and Moussa Dembélé sending the latter through on goal, but Pepe Reina stood big and deflected his shot away.
There was an openness to the match and within moments the Reds had a shot on goal of their own. A delightful ball from Adam sent Suárez scurrying towards the byline. He pulled the ball back into ‘the danger area’ where Carroll was waiting, but on the stretch the striker could only put his shot straight at Mark Schwarzer.
The game continued to press on at a good pace for the next twenty minutes, with Liverpool looking the side more composed on the ball, but the odd defensive frailty ensuring that Fulham had perhaps the better chances. Dembélé and Dempsey were being given far too much space between the Liverpool defence and midfield, and on more than one occasion Reina had to be alert to keep the scores level.
Just on the half hour, however, Liverpool came agonisingly close to taking the lead. After they had signalled that they still carried a threat with a 50 yard ball from Suárez which missed Bellamy by mere inches, Jordan Henderson cracked a shot off the post. The midfielder, who was playing well in the middle, spotted space ahead of him and burst into the penalty area. The ball sat up perfectly and he took an early shot, catching everyone off guard. It looked for all the world to be going in, and the Liverpool fans in the opposite end of the ground began to celebrate, but the ball flicked off the inside of the post and across the face of goal to safety.
Carroll had another half chance when again Suárez pulled the ball back into his path, but the close attentions of Brede Hangeland meant that Carroll couldn’t get his shot away and the home side cleared. When the half time whistle sounded it was the home fans who breathed the bigger sigh of relief, their side had created chances but there was no doubt that they had also been second best and were lucky to get to the break still level.
What happened in the first half was soon forgotten in the action packed, controversial forty-five minutes that were to follow. It began with an incident between Dempsey and Bellamy, the former angered by the latter and reacting by going head-to-head with the Liverpool man. Had the Welsh international reacted as many would have in the modern game, throwing himself to the ground at the lightest touch, he may well have earned a red card for his American opponent, but in standing his ground and being snarled at, he earned himself a fairly unfathomable booking, the same punishment as meted out to Dempsey.
The Reds were taking the game by the scruff of the neck, and won corner after corner as they pounded on the Fulham goal. They couldn’t break down the door, though they should have been given the chance to do so from the penalty spot on the hour. After Fulham had briefly pushed forward, Liverpool won the ball and countered with a four-on-three attack.
With players to his left and right, Adam powered forward, taking the ball round Philippe Senderos, only to be cynically hauled to the ground by the Swiss defender. Although the initial contact was inches outside the penalty area, the foul continued into the box before Adam was eventually felled, and referee Kevin Friend should have pointed to the penalty spot rather than awarded a free kick. From that free kick, Bellamy hammered the ball into the wall, but it could and should have been so much easier for the Reds.
That was only the first decision which incensed the travelling support, however. After Bellamy had fired another chance wide of goal, a beautifully chipped pass from José Enrique found Suárez in the penalty area. The Uruguayan showed brilliant control to bring the ball down past the onrushing Schwarzer and finish calmly, but the assistant referee’s raised offside flag cut short his celebrations. Replays showed that Suárez had been level with the last defender, and certainly had not benefited from any doubt.
It seemed only a matter of time before they would score, but then disaster struck. Spearing, closing Dembélé down as he had been all throughout the second half, raced into a tackle and won the ball cleanly, setting up a potential counter attack. It was what happened subsequently that caught Friend’s attention, however, the combative Scouser’s follow through taking him clattering into the Belgian forward.
There was disbelief when a straight red card was flashed in his direction, though on examination of the replays, after winning the ball both his feet left the ground as he went through Dembélé, and the moment that happened he gave the referee a decision to make. It was a classic case of a tackle which would have been met with rapturous applause twenty years ago, but in the modern game is always going to risk harsher sanction.
With a man extra, Fulham came back into the match, with Dembélé and Dempsey afforded all the space they wanted to cause problems. The latter hit the crossbar with ten minutes left, a looping effort from the edge of the box which would have been a fitting way to win such an entertaining game, though it wasn’t the final time the woodwork was called into action.
Stewart Downing had been sent on – with Dirk Kuyt – in the aftermath of Spearing’s dismissal – and it was the former Aston Villa man who had Liverpool’s final chance to win the game. Picking the ball up twenty yards from goal, he unleashed a shot which was arrowed towards the top corner, but a stunning intervention from Schwarzer tipped the ball onto the post and away.
Within moments of that incident, indeed the post was probably still shaking such was the force of Downing’s shot, the decisive goal had been scored. Danny Murphy got away from Glen Johnson far too easily and shot towards goal. That should have been the end of the matter, but Reina spilled the ball, and before he could pounce on it at the second attempt, Dempsey nicked in and flicked the ball over him into the net. It was a crushing blow, and of a cruelty that Reina didn’t deserve given his performance in the preceding 85 minutes, but with little time left there was nothing Liverpool could do to turn things around.
12 – Liverpool have hit the frame of the goal 12 times this season, more than any other side. They also hit the woodwork more times than anyone else in both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.
62 – At their current points per game rate (1.64) Liverpool are on course to earn 62 points this season. Over the last five seasons that total would, on average, see them finish in 6th place.
7 – Having taken 240 shots and scored 17 goals this season, Liverpool have a chance conversion rate of 7.08%.
95 – Jordan Henderson completed 53 out of 56 attempted passes last night, giving him a pass accuracy of 95%, the highest on either side.
“I think you need to ask them (referees) what their interpretation is. It’s frustrating because no one ever tells us what the interpretation is.
“Jay had no other thought in his mind but to win the ball, and he did win the ball. I’m not a referee so all you can say is sometimes they are given, sometimes they are not, but as long as they are consistent then it’s not a problem.
“We’ll have a look at it again and see if it’s worth appealing.” Kenny Dalglish wants consistency in refereeing after Jay Spearing’s red card.
“I don’t think we were going to get anything tonight, were we?
“Luis scored a goal which didn’t count that could have gone either way and Charlie Adam could have got a penalty when he got pulled down.
“They had a couple of good efforts and Pepe made some good saves and they also hit the bar, but I think overall we looked as though we were going to get something from the game – we certainly deserved to.
“We didn’t play as well as we have been playing but we still did enough to win the game. We have just got to brush ourselves down now, get on with it and get ourselves ready for QPR on Saturday.” Dalglish believes his side did enough to have won the game.
“It’s a huge disappointment but we need to keep going, look at ourselves and try to improve. We definitely want to challenge for the top four and if we want to do that we need to win these type of games.
“I thought we were unlucky because we had the chances to score. We did okay in the first half but the way we came out in the second half was much better.
“I didn’t see Jay’s challenge and I don’t know if it was a red card. Obviously it didn’t help us in our efforts to win the game. It’s a huge disappointment not to get the three points.” Dirk Kuyt believes Liverpool need to win this kind of game to challenge for the top four.
It has been the problem for Liverpool for longer than I now care to remember that we are perfectly capable of beating the better teams around us, but fail to put to the sword those teams that we should be beating comfortably. Last night was yet another example of that. There was no doubt that refereeing decisions didn’t help the Reds, and the sending off of Spearing dramatically changed the course of the game, but they had more than enough chances to have put the game out of sight before that time, and it is that on which they should look back and attempt to rectify.
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