Liverpool's spine begins to crumble

Fulham 3 Liverpool 1
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As Liverpool supporters walked along the Thames to Craven Cottage on Saturday one was heard expressing his concern over this fixture adding, sardonically: "That's the beauty of our team now, you never know what's going to happen."

Beaten by a beach ball a fortnight ago, easy victors against the champions last week and now this extraordinary, calamitous defeat: this season's Liverpool are in the middle of a bewildering run that must infuriate a control freak like Rafael Benitez. Unpredictability may be exciting, but everyone at the club pines for the days when they remorselessly ground out wins.

That was a generation ago, and last season's close pursuit of Manchester United already seems a false dawn in the quest to regain old glories. Injuries have exposed a lack of depth in Benitez's expensively assembled squad with the XI fielded at Fulham including such wannabes and wastrels as Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Emiliano Insua, Philipp Degen and Andrei Voronin. By the end they had been joined by Nathan Eccleston, Daniel Ayala and Ryan Babel.

But the weakness of the fringe players and supporting cast is only part of the problem, there are also concerns about a once formidable spine. In Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, Liverpool had a backbone to match any in the game. Reina continues to shine but Alonso has gone, Mascherano, worn down by Argentina's tempestuous World Cup qualifying campaign, is short of form, and Gerrard and Torres are afflicted by injury. Then there is Carragher. Fortunate not to be dismissed against United last week, when bringing down Michael Owen, he should have been sent off after an hour on Saturday for bringing down Bobby Zamora. In the event, the referee Lee Mason's reprieve lasted only 20 minutes before the stand-in captain again found himself the wrong side of Zamora.

Carragher and Benitez both insisted his dismissal was wrong, citing the fact that Carragher got his foot to the ball as Zamora went down. He did, but had he not already been holding Zamora back with both arms around the striker's waist the defender would never been able to get near the ball.

Carragher is 31 now. He has been a marvellous stalwart for Liverpool, but is not getting any younger, or quicker. It may be the constant changing of partners – Kyrgiakos was his third this season – and their uncertainties have contribution to his dip in form. Liverpool's centre-halves are also being more exposed by Benitez encouraging his full-backs to push forward more. Degan was so advanced for much of this game that Carragher was often in the right-back position.

Although Carragher was undone each time by balls chipped over the top, Roy Hodgson insisted Fulham had not targeted Liverpool's central defence, the manager adding: "They don't concede many goals normally."

Liverpool have let in 16 in 11 league games, more than bottom club Portsmouth, and kept one clean sheet in their last eight Premier and Champions League games. Only Arsenal and Chelsea have scored more than Liverpool's 25, but 14 of those were scored in three home matches against Stoke, Burnley and Hull.

Benitez insisted he was looking only as far ahead as forthcoming fixtures against Lyons and Birmingham City adding: "You need to stay calm and keep working hard to find solutions. The only way to change things is to try to do your job properly and win."

Hodgson said he would not rule Liverpool out: "I think this year the top teams will lose more games than in the past. I can see them going on a really good run. If that was to coincide with defeats for the other top teams they would soon be up there."

Hodgson's team deserve great credit for soaking up pressure for the first hour when Liverpool monopolised possession, then clinically punishing the increasingly depleted visitors. Zamora, who scored the first, terrorised Liverpool's back four with his running, Erik Nevland, who added a neat second, and Zoltan Gera made a difference when they came on, both full-backs and Chris Baird, in a holding role, also impressed. For all the fuss about Liverpool's crisis, there is no shame in losing at Craven Cottage. That is how far Hodgson has taken Fulham.

Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Dempsey, Baird, Greening (Etuhu, 85), Duff (Gera, h-t); Zamora, Kamara (Nevland, h-t). Substitutes not used: Zuberbühler (gk), Kelly, Riise, Smalling.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Degen, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Insua; Mascherano, Lucas; Kuyt (Ayala, 83), Voronin, Benayoun (Eccleston, 77); Torres (Babel, 62). Substitutes not used: Gulacsi (gk), Spearing, Plessis, Dossena, Ayala.

Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).

Booked: Fulham Baird, Kamara.

Sent off: Liverpool Degen (79), Carragher (82).

Man of the match: Zamora.

Attendance: 25,700.

From title contenders to also-rans: Liverpool's slump in form

29 Sep: Fiorentina 2 Liverpool 0 Stefan Jovetic double downs Reds in Florence

4 Oct: Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0 Poor defending allows Chelsea to coast home

17 Oct: Sunderland 1 Liverpool 0 Darren Bent scores "balloon" goal

20 Oct: Liverpool 1 Lyons 2 Late Cesar Delgado strike deepens crisis

25 Oct: Liverpool 2 Manchester Utd 0 First win in a month

28 Oct: Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1 Nicklas Bendtner scores winner as Gunners shade battle of reserve outfits

31 Oct: Fulham 3 Liverpool 1 Two off beside the Thames as Reds crumble once again

James Mariner