Fulham 0 Liverpool 2
Fulham’s survival hopes were virtually finished off by goals from Jermaine Pennant and Peter Crouch as Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez again sent out a virtual reserve side at Craven Cottage.
Benitez risked the wrath of Fulham’s relegation rivals by fielding another weakened Liverpool team in west London a gift which Fulham snapped up almost a year ago with a 1-0 win that ultimately saved them from the drop.
This time the Spaniard made eight changes but once Liverpool had seen off Fulham’s inevitable early flurry and taken a 16th-minute lead through a cracking finish by Pennant they always looked likely to justify their manager’s decision.
Pennant, who broke a leg in October, banged in his second goal in 16 starts this season from a smart pass by Steven Gerrard’s replacement Lucas Leiva and Fulham, for all their commitment and sweat, could have done with a little of that power in front of goal.
With Javier Mascherano, Martin Skrtel, Sami Hyypia, Peter Crouch, Andriy Voronin and Pennant, who was jeered mercilessly by the Craven Cottage crowd after winning an early free kick against Clint Dempsey, it was still a Liverpool line-up that could equal the strength of many of their Premier League opponents.
Jamie Carragher and Fernando Torres were on the bench but Carragher replaced Sami Hyypia at half-time and Xabi Alonso also came on in midfield.
Skipper Brian McBride recovered quickly from an early knock before Dempsey’s determined progress down the left was halted by a crude challenge by Mascherano.
Jimmy Bullard swung in a testing free kick that curled into the six-yard box but keeper Jose Reina collected impressively.
Hyypia and Skrtel had their work cut out with timely interceptions as Fulham found width and movement for Simon Davies and Dempsey to provide a stream of crosses into the box but Fulham were almost caught out by their former right back Steve Finnan’s run and cross in the 14th minute.
Defender Paul Stalteri did just enough to put off the towering Crouch who put his header just wide of the mark.
And three minutes later they paid the price for not picking up Leiva in midfield when he snapped on to Voronin’s pass and provided the perfect lay-off for Pennant to drill a thundering right-foot shot high inside keeper Kasey Keller’s left-hand post.
As Fulham’s early fire faded, Crouch was close to a second Liverpool goal when he just failed to convert a Pennant cross and the closest Fulham came to equalising before the break was the giant Brede Hangeland’s off-target header from another Bullard free kick.
Liverpool looked composed and comfortable throughout the second half even though Reina was left grasping thin air by a Davies cross from the left and a Dempsey snap-shot which both finished wide of the mark.
Russian striker Voronin lifted an overhead kick just too high from a Pennant corner as Liverpool looked for the killer second goal and Yossi Benayoun, enduring a patchy personal performance, twice finished off target from Pennant’s assists
With 20 minutes to go Dempsey’s header from a David Healy cross finished just wide but seconds later Crouch sealed the points for Liverpool with a low finish from a Pennant pass which veteran keeper Keller will kick himself for not keeping out.
The ball, well struck though it was, appeared to go clean through the goalkeeper’s grasp.
Danny Murphy bungled a chance to put Fulham back in for a late shout when he rammed his shot at Reina’s legs when presented with a clear opening by the classy Bullard’s pass.