IT WAS not destined to be a triumphant return to Anfield for Kevin Keegan and Peter Beardsley, but Fulham were by no means disgraced in going out of the Worthington Cup to the club for whom they both played with such distinction.
It took an unlucky own goal and a penalty to begin the process of turning an unconvincing Liverpool performance into a winning one. In-between, Fulham claimed the goal of the match from its most enterprising player, Paul Peschisolido, and that was the least they deserved for a thoroughly creditable effort.
Keegan, confined to a more static role than usual by his recent neck operation, had nothing to be ashamed of in the display of his current side. Beardsley, almost as big a favourite with the Kop, was hailed as a hero whenever he began warming up. He was brought off the bench for the last few minutes, but by then his side was out of contention.
For a long time, however, Fulham's assumptions that Liverpool had turned the corner by putting five past Nottingham Forest at the weekend looked distinctly premature. Their five across the back proved harder to break down than Forest had been and, particularly in Peschisolido, they had the pace and tenacity to unsettle the Liverpool defence.
It took Simon Morgan's misfortune to set the home side on their way. David Thompson, one of Liverpool's occasionals given a Worthington Cup outing, had a lively game, but his shot from outside the area eight minutes into the second half hardly looked likely to find a way through. But it looped wickedly off Morgan's outstretched boot to leave Maik Taylor completely stranded - the stroke of luck Liverpool needed to lift the growing pressure.
Peschisolido's response was one of the best goals Anfield will see this season. The Canadian appeared to be going nowhere when he sized up his chances from beyond the angle of the penalty area, but he unleashed a magnificent dipping left-footer that found Brad Friedel's top corner.
The score stayed level for just three minutes. Michael Owen took on the Fulham defence before he was tripped by Gus Uhlenbeek, who had earlier cleared a Paul Ince header off the Fulham line. Robbie Fowler, who scored all five when these sides last met in this competition, tucked away the penalty.
Fulham still looked capable of getting back on terms until Ince, a driving force and a threat in the air all night, put it beyond doubt by meeting Steve Staunton's free-kick and giving Taylor equally little chance.
Liverpool's joint manager, Gerard Houllier, was realistic enough to acknowledge that it had not been "a comfortable performance".
"We have to give credit to Kevin's team," he said. "They were very well organised and difficult to beat. We knew we had to keep the pace and tempo in the game; in the long run they would leave some space and make a mistake."
Liverpool (4-4-2): Friedel; McAteer, Carragher, Staunton, Bjornebye; Thompson, Ince, Murphy (Harkness, 73), Berger; Fowler, Owen (Dundee, 83). Substitutes not used: James (gk), Kvarme, Riedle.
Fulham (5-3-2): Taylor; Uhlenbeek, Coleman, Morgan, Symons, Brevett; Davis (Smith, 89), Collins, Haywood; Lehmann (Betsy, 83), Peschisolido (Beardsley, 83). Substitutes not used: Neilson, Arendse (gk).
Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).