With 10 points still separating Liverpool from the Premiership peak, the prospects of their long wait for a first League title since 1990 concluding this season remain distant. However, their chances of regaining a place in the Champions League, and thereby earning Gérard Houllier another crack at the main prize, were significantly enhanced by yesterday's victory at Loftus Road.
Danny Murphy's 88th-minute penalty did not just bring Liverpool within two points of that lucrative fourth place, it also reaffirmed Houllier's - and his team's - belief in their new, adventurous approach. In the long term this could prove hugely important.
Murphy's goal capped an afternoon in which Liverpool proved they could combine flair with resilience. Having been rewarded for their early dominance with Emile Heskey's sweetly taken goal, they were disappointed to go into the break level after Louis Saha equalised. With Fulham then displaying the form which brought them victory at Old Trafford last week, Liverpool had to rely on their old defensive virtues before reasserting themselves to snatch victory.
"We showed we could be both resilient and fluent," Houllier said. "For 25 minutes we had to stick together and wait until things became better. We kept believing we could get a result.
"The last three years we have been known for our defensive strength and solidity. I want that to go on but I also want us to reflect the fact we have players who can go forward."
When changing a style which has brought success, albeit limited to cups, it is the players who have to be convinced. Murphy indicated this was now the case when he said: "We've been playing more attacking football this season. We scored more goals but we also conceded more. We've been working on that and hopefully we've now got the balance right."
Liverpool's victory was helped by Fulham's slow start. Given their exalted position, and last weekend's victory at Old Trafford, their early football was surprisingly incoherent. Maybe the win over Manchester United had created a sense of expectation which had previously been absent.
If so the burden weighed heavily. The misunderstandings which affected their central defence could be excused by the injuries which had taken Alain Goma and Edwin van der Sar out of the line-up but, further forward, there was no such mitigation. Lee Clark attempted to prompt but there was little movement around him. In attack Louis Saha cut an isolated figure.
He should, though, have scored after 10 minutes. Steed Malbranque pumped a long ball forward. Jerzy Dudek came for it, waited on the edge of his box, and watched the ball bounce over his head. Saha had merely to steer the ball into the unguarded net but he, too, misjudged it and Liverpool were able to clear.
The visitors were otherwise in control. Sami Hyypia twice escaped Luis Boa Morte to meet Murphy corners, Mark Crossley scrambling his first header away, the second drifting wide. Liverpool's 16th-minute goal was not, then, unexpected. The manner of it was. Steve Finnan crossed left-footed from the right and Heskey stepped in front of Andy Melville to volley in.
It was to be the summit of Heskey's afternoon. Soon afterwards he bruised his toe but was asked to limp on for another hour before being mercifully replaced. In that time he might have scored again, after 64 minutes. Michael Owen, hitherto anonymous except to the linesman who continually flagged him offside, headed on Steven Gerrard's cross. Vladimir Smicer's shot was blocked by Crossley and the ball rolled to Heskey, hobbling behind. His shot was cleared off the line by Jerome Bonnissel.
By then Fulham were back in the game. Following a break down the right by Moritz Volz the ball ran to Malbranque. He turned inside Gerrard who, trying to recover, inadvertently diverted his cross to an unmarked Saha at the far post.
Liverpool held firm before Gerrard hauled them back into the game. Even then, with Crossley brilliantly denying Smicer, it seemed a stalemate would ensue. Then Florent Sinama-Pongolle, having controlled a long ball, looked to nip past Zat Knight, who tripped him. The only consolation for the young defender, who had previously been excellent, was that Sven Goran Eriksson had already left.
After Murphy tucked away the penalty Fulham's frustration manifested itself in two minutes of madness from Boa Morte. Booked for dissent, he then received a straight red for what Chris Coleman, his manager, admitted was "a horrific tackle" on Sinama-Pongolle. "There are no complaints. He will be disciplined," Coleman said. He was less prepared to accept the result but the League table still looks good to Fulham's fans this morning. For a change it no longer looks embarrassing to Liverpool's.
Goals: Heskey (16) 0-1; Saha (39) 1-1; Murphy (pen, 88) 1-2.
Fulham (4-1-4-1): Crossley 6; Volz 6, Knight 5, Melville 4, Bonnissel 4; Legwinski 3; Malbranque 5, Clark 5, Pembridge 4 (Djetou 5, 21), Boa Morte 2; Saha 6 (Hayles, 86). Substitutes not used: Beasant (gk), Davis, Buari.
Liverpool (4-1-2-1-2): Dudek 5; Finnan 5, Biscan 5 (Henchoz 5, 65), Hyypia 7, Traoré 4; Gerrard 8; Murphy 6, Kewell 5; Smicer 4; Heskey 5 (Le Tallec, 81), Owen 3 (Sinama-Pongolle 7, 75). Substitutes not used: Kirkland (gk), Hamann.
Referee: R Styles (Waterlooville) 4.
Booked: Fulham: Boa Morte. Liverpool: Murphy. Sent-off: Boa Morte.
Man of the match: Gerrard.Reuse content