More indignities have been heaped on Gérard Houllier this season than he would happily contemplate, but he has been spared at least one. No Liverpool manager has lost at home to Fulham and that record of invincibility was preserved yesterday. Do not expect to see Anfield's streets bedecked with bunting.
Rather than celebrating, Houllier will be trying to contrive blessings from another disappointing performance that further hampers Liverpool's chances of reaching the Champions' League next season. They have taken only one point from their past nine - much more of this and the eagerly anticipated clash at Anfield on 15 May will merely be a chance for Newcastle to bask in gaining the much- coveted fourth place.
Yesterday Liverpool looked bereft of ideas and, although they missed a penalty and hit the post, only the most red-eyed of fans could begrudge Fulham a point. The visitors, who dropped Sean Davis and Zat Knight for breaking a curfew last week, also hit the bar and worked prodigiously to their pre-match plan of containment. It worked only too easily and the home players left the pitch to what is becoming a regular conclusion: the sound of jeers.
"I know the headlines will not be nice for us," said Houllier, who attributed the players' trepidation to the reception after Monday's defeat by Charlton Athletic, "but we'll keep on battling." On the penalty, taken by Steven Gerrard in preference to the normal choice, Michael Owen, he added: "If Michael had felt he could take the penalty he would have done so. It was down to the players to find a solution. You can't blame Steven for missing; it was a good save."
It was also Liverpool's best chance. Their ideal opponents are those who leave themselves open to a counter-attack but as soon as Fulham lined up it was clear they were not going to expose themselves with any gung-ho charges. Nine players dug trenches as soon as they lost the ball and the home side were soon struggling in no-man's land. Vladimir Smicer shot weakly after 11 minutes, Owen was forced wide and had his cross cut out five minutes later and the England striker whistled a shot narrowly wide after 24, but as the first half wore on Liverpool looked more like a team in need of an idea.
Indeed, it was Fulham who came closest to scoring before the interval. After 29 minutes Moritz Volz's shot ricocheted off Stephane Henchoz's leg and looped against the bar and 11 minutes later Collins John shot tamely into Jerzy Dudek's body after Luis Boa Morte had given him the freedom of the area. "It reminds us that he is just an 18-year-old," Chris Coleman, the Fulham manager, said. "He's still learning."
Gerrard probably feels he has learned not to take penalties again because he took the responsibility when Owen, who has missed three this season, declined. But to be fair to the Liverpool captain, his shot was well taken and could have crept in by the post, but Edwin van der Sar dived down to his right to palm the ball away.
Perhaps Owen felt the need to make amends because he suddenly burst into action, cutting in from the left and leaving two opponents in his wake. His shot was powerful, but so is the fate that is dogging Liverpool, and the ball was cut out in mid-flight by his team-mate Harry Kewell. Kewell probably realised it was not going to be his day when he hit the post with a fierce drive after 68 minutes and Owen, whose confidence seems to be draining away, was denied by Volz with a last-gasp lunge with 12 minutes left.
All seemed to be building up to a Liverpool winner, but the best opportunity to clinch the win fell to Fulham. Steed Malbranque beat Henchoz on the left and pulled the ball back for Junichi Inamoto, eight yards out. With a precision in keeping with much of the game beforehand, he blazed over.
Nevertheless Coleman was delighted with the draw. "For us to be five points behind Liverpool with four games to go just shows how well we have done," he said. The way Houllier's team have under-achieved this season, it was almost damning with faint praise.
Liverpool 0 Fulham 0
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