Steven Gerrard scored an stoppage-time penalty to earn Liverpool a hard-fought Premier League victory at Craven Cottage on Wednesday, as Fulham led twice before being pegged back by the Reds three times.
A comical error from Kolo Toure gave Fulham the lead via an own goal, before Gerrard launched a sumptuous through-ball for Daniel Sturridge to equalize before half-time.
Kieran Richardson seized on a defensive mishap to hand the Cottagers the lead just after the hour mark, before Philippe Coutinho again leveled matters with the aid of a deflection.
Sturridge’s speed on the turn saw Sascha Riether foul him inside the box in stoppage time, and Gerrard stepped up and finished with aplomb to hand the visitors all three points.
Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s last-gasp win over Fulham. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Problems Persist at the Back
Before we mention the positives from Liverpool’s win, we will first give credit to Fulham’s approach and attitude, as well as acknowledge the Reds’ weaknesses.
Rene Meulensteen’s side started the match not looking like a team currently bottom of the Premier League, and their constant pressing and runs at a nervy Liverpool defence meant that Kolo Toure’s own goal, while a dreadful error, was everything the home side deserved.
Lewis Holtby has proven to be an inspired signing in the January window by Fulham, as he was at the center of everything good about the Cottagers’ first-half play. Darren Bent, so often criticized for his work rate and for being merely a good finisher, looked a transformed player as he led the line up front.
Even as Liverpool started the second half on the front foot, picking up from how they had finished the first, their defence was still susceptible and looked a liability every time Fulham crossed the ball.
Martin Skrtel, coming off the back of a heroic two-goal salvo against Arsenal on Saturday, was nervous and hesitant in his positioning and clearances, and was at fault for Kieran Richardson’s equalizer.
The Reds continue to rack up the goals up front, but until Brendan Rodgers sorts out his defence, Liverpool fans may have plenty of nail-biters to come yet.
Steven Gerrard Is Still the Man for Liverpool
Now onto the positives.
After all these years, Steven Gerrard is still the main man for Liverpool.
Having been written off as “past it” many times in the past couple of seasons, Gerrard has also been criticized in recent weeks for adapting slowly to a new role as the Reds’ holding midfielder.
But just because the captain has been pushed into a deeper position doesn’t mean his influence on Liverpool’s proceedings has waned a bit.
His through ball to set up Daniel Sturridge was a moment of brilliance fit to change any game, and the sort of split-second flash of inspiration only Gerrard seems to be capable of.
And what of his late, late penalty?
On Wednesday, as ever in the past decade, when Liverpool were in need of a winner in the 90th minute, up stepped Steven Gerrard to hand his side all three points.
It’s now seven goals and nine assists for the England skipper this season. Not too shabby at all.
Daniel Sturridge, Game-Changer
There was a time when a whole match of anonymity and frustration would precede a breathtaking, all-important finish, and in the forms of Michael Owen and Fernando Torres, that would sit just fine with the Liverpool fans.
Daniel Sturridge has taken up that mantle.
Not as hard-working off the ball or mercurial on it as Luis Suarez, Sturridge has his own approach to being Liverpool’s main striker, one that requires him to be alert to every opportunity and ready to take every chance off the shoulders of the last defender.
Another game, another cool finish from Sturridge. Gerrard’s pass was a moment to savor, but Sturridge’s control and composure were what made the goal happen.
It’s now seven goals in seven consecutive league games for the No. 15 (a first for Liverpool), and 16 goals in 18 matches this season.
Have we mentioned his speed on the turn to win a penalty at the death?
A New Member Joins the Liverpool Makeover
When the fourth official’s board lit up on 82 minutes and Raheem Sterling was to come off, it wasn’t for a wing replacement in Victor Moses or an additional striker in Iago Aspas.
It was for No. 53, a little-known Portuguese prospect named Joao Carlos Teixeira, making his debut.
With 10 minutes left to play, Liverpool were level with Fulham, knowing that Tottenham Hotspur had just thumped Newcastle 4-0, and both Arsenal and Manchester United had dropped points in a 0-0 draw.
And it was Teixeira that Brendan Rodgers turned to.
Yet in those 10 minutes, it was clear to see why. The 21-year-old showed a calmness and composure on the ball to eclipse perhaps even that of Coutinho, while his passing and shooting on goal both showed signs of a young player confident in his own ability to influence a match.
Perhaps he didn’t play a direct part in Liverpool’s late clincher, but running out last-gasp winners in his senior debut will have done all the good in the world for Teixeira.
This is a young, young Liverpool side with an old head in Steven Gerrard leading the dressing room. Exciting times for Reds fans, even without looking at the league table.
Character and Mentality Now a Reds Hallmark
It is perhaps because of the youth and raw exuberance of this Liverpool team that Brendan Rodgers brought in the leadership of Kolo Toure last summer and pulled all stops to keep Steven Gerrard in the first team.
And it’s fair to say that they are reaping the benefits now, even despite Toure’s two high-profile errors in the space of 10 days.
The togetherness shown by the squad in recent weeks as Liverpool have stepped up their chase for the top four—and, whisper it quietly, in the title race—has been nothing short of impressive, and Rodgers deserves all the credit he can get for the mentality he has instilled in the Anfield dressing room.
With youngsters getting a chance on the pitch even in important games—see Brad Smith’s debut at Stamford Bridge in December, regardless of his performance, and Jordon Ibe’s cameo against Arsenal on Saturday—and a healthy mix of experience and energy, Rodgers is at the helm of a purring machine with all its parts humming in harmony.
What better to exhibit this togetherness than to see Iago Aspas, who would’ve been forgiven for sulking on the sidelines, leaping from the bench and yelling at the referee for a Coutinho foul at the death?
Liverpool Must Keep Their Feet on the Ground
All the same, Liverpool have to keep a balanced sense of perspective and their feet firmly on the ground.
The last time they thrashed a rival in the 4-0 Merseyside derby demolition, they followed it up with a limp 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion. And for 90 minutes at Craven Cottage, it looked like they would follow up a 5-1 hammering of Arsenal with yet another two points dropped.
So in the context of the whole season, it may prove to have been to Liverpool’s benefit that they had to grind out this victory at Fulham.
As the old cliche goes, there are no easy games in the Premier League, and a hard-fought win at the league’s basement club has shown just that.
Next up are Swansea City at home and Southampton away, both sides who have posed real challenges to the Reds in recent seasons with their styles of play.
There will be plenty more opportunities to test Liverpool’s mettle, and every win from this point forward will be their biggest win of the season.
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.