Fulham 0 Liverpool 2: Pennant shines to leave Fulham on brink of drop
Benitez rests key players for semi-final but Liverpool are still too stron
Another limp home loss, another slither closer to the abyss for Fulham. And, here's the humiliating part, it was against a Liverpool team by no means the star-studded best that manager Rafael Benitez could have fielded.
Instead, with Tuesday's Champions' League semi-final first leg against Chelsea very much in mind, Benitez gave Steven Gerrard and Ryan Babel the afternoon off and did not require his 30-goal man, Fernando Torres, to budge from the bench.
He did the same thing at this stage last season and was vilified by other Premier League strugglers when Fulham came away with a 1-0 win and escaped the drop by two places and one point. There was never the slightest hope of a Fulham repeat once Jermaine Pennant, hardly a regular starter, had put Liverpool ahead early in the first half. Peter Crouch's clincher 20 minutes from the end, laid on by the lively Pennant, merely confirmed what had been evident throughout the match.
There are now three games left for Fulham and manager Roy Hodgson, determinedly upbeat, expressed the hope that his side would be good enough to collect nine points. Some hope.
Despite being outplayed for much of the match, Fulham did manage to fashion a handful of chances, but blew the lot. The last, and worst, miss was perpetrated by Danny Murphy, straining to shine against his former club. With only Jose Reina between him and the net, Murphy managed to hit the keeper's outstretched leg. A bellowed curse from the back of the stand contained the phrase "barn door".
Liverpool were content to have pocketed the points so comfortably. "We needed to do a good job today and that job is done," said Benitez. Eight changes had been made from their last outing but, in his opinion, "We showed we have enough quality and confidence."
They also came away with nothing worse than a head knock suffered by Sami Hyypia while Javier Mascherano, targeted by Murphy, eventually retired bruised but confident of his availability for Tuesday.
Fulham's approach to this match bordered on the bizarre. The chairman, Mohamed Al-Fayed, executed his familiar pre-game amble onto the field, while a ticker-tape greeting was announced, the sort of thing awarded to heroes rather than strugglers. The loudspeakers also boomed out "Viva El Fulham", a song whose lyrics include Cup success and League progress. The reality was much bleaker. Fulham came out of the traps full of vim but the visitors absorbed it easily enough and hit back rapidly. Pennant started a move out on the right, then moved into the middle to accept a gloriously weighted pass from Lucas Leiva, smacking it high into the net between Kasey Keller and his near post. It was a shot which looked saveable.
Another Pennant cross, this time skimming the turf, reached John Arne Riise beyond the far post but the industrious Paul Stalteri was on hand to turn it behind. Fulham's best opportunity of the opening half was wasted by the centre-back, Brede Hangeland. A corner kick came straight to him but he placed his header a couple of feet the wrong side of the upright.
On the resumption Andriy Voronin showed there is more to him than a pretty ponytail with a bicycle kick which cleared the bar – again from a Pennant corner – and Yossi Benayoun's shot on the turn was blocked.
Brian McBride's weakly stabbed effort from a Simon Davies cross on the hour roused Fulham to a brighter spell and twice Clint Dempsey got in headers which were not far from counting. The first was from a fine Jimmy Bullard free-kick, the second when David Healy managed his one positive contribution with a cross.
Healy was making one of his rare starts, having presumably been instructed to pretend he was wearing the shirt of Northern Ireland, for whom he scores regularly. He was removed with a quarter of an hour to go, but not before adding another bruise to Mascherano's leg, an act which earned him a yellow card.
By then it was long over after Pennant had threaded the ball past four white shirts for Crouch to shoot low. It was half-saved by Keller, the final indignity of a wretched occasion for Fulham.