Liverpool look good to Benitez as Alonso papers over cracks

Fulham 2 - Liverpool 4
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The Independent Football

Three thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times before yesterday Liverpool have taken to the field for a League match. Rarely will they ever have played as badly as they did in the first half here. They were shocking. Absolutely shocking.

Three thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times before yesterday Liverpool have taken to the field for a League match. Rarely will they ever have played as badly as they did in the first half here. They were shocking. Absolutely shocking.

That they somehow won this contest was due entirely to Fulham's own shortcomings in protecting their lead, two goals which took heavy deflections, and the introduction of a vibrant Xabi Alonso who scored the third and ran the show.

Quite why the midfielder didn't start was a cause of head-shaking bewilderment although his manager Rafael Benitez said that, after the international matches, he was rested. But then Benitez appeared to be in a world of his own. "The team played well," he said of the first half. "In my opinion we controlled the game." It was a quixotic opinion from the Spaniard. He said he would watch the tape. Surely then he will revise his judgement.

The victory was Liverpool's first away from home this season, following back-to-back defeats, but the result only partially masked the problems even if they scored twice when down to 10 men after Josemi's rightful dismissal. Yet, Liverpool find themselves just a point behind Manchester United with a game in hand.

Fulham manager Chris Coleman has his own headaches, not least because of his stricken squad. He had been suffering from sleepless nights since losing to Crystal Palace. Goodness knows what insomnia will plague him after this débâcle which means his side have won only one in their last seven. As ever, he refused to hide behind excuses. "We need to show togetherness and belief," he said. "Too many heads went down. We can't feel sorry for ourselves, and even if we didn't get the rub of the green, we need to make our own luck."

It all started so well. After an error-ridden first 20 minutes - in which Mark Pembridge, one of three former Everton players in the home side, came closest with a skimming shot from a tapped free-kick - Fulham took control. As usual Steed Malbranque was the architect. Following a jinking run he slid the ball through to Brian McBride whose low cross was bundled in at the far post by the onrushing, effervescent Luis Boa Morte with his marker, Josemi, hesitating.

Liverpool were stunned and were stunned again minutes later when, this time on the other flank, Malbranque slipped a pass to Boa Morte and coolly, from the corner of the area, he drove his shot through Chris Kirkland's legs.

Alonso spent half-time going through an intensive warm-up. He replaced the woeful Salif Diao. At first Liverpool continued to play sloppily and only Zat Knight's poor first touch, from a flicked-on corner, prevented a third. It proved crucial for Fulham, and Knight in particular. The defender did score. But it was in his own net. From the right Milan Baros drove a shot or a cross or something and it struck Knight instead of its intended target (which looked like the corner flag), spun into the turf and outrageously kicked up and over Edwin van der Sar. It was a body-blow and Alonso, dropping deep, dictating play, cutting off Malbranque, exploited it.

The Spaniard's cross got the faintest of touches off Luis Garcia's head and, after Van der Sar parried, an incredulous Baros was there to poke the ball in. The temperature rose and Josemi, recklessly, lunged at Boa Morte. A second yellow card and he was off, with 14 minutes left. Fulham should have come back. Instead they panicked and that left Coleman upset.

"We needed to show more courage," he said. It came from Liverpool instead. They pushed on and won a free-kick outside the area. Alonso grasped the ball and his right-foot shot took a heavy deflection off Papa Boupa Diop's head to beat Van der Sar. Liverpool were rampant now, Fulham in disarray and after Alonso should have added a fourth, when he ballooned over from Djibril Cissé's cut-back, substitute Igor Biscan did. The Croat had barely been on for a dozen injury-time seconds when a flowing move led to him nonchalantly side-footing high into the net from the area's edge. He wasn't the only one who couldn't believe it.

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