Liverpool get all three points in a comfortable victory at Anfield, easing to a 4-0 win against Fulham in a performance that was on the opposite end of the spectrum from last weekend's display against Aston Villa.
Liverpool 4: Skrtel 8', Gerrard 36', Downing 51', Suarez 90+1'
As expected (and hoped for), Brendan Rodgers gave Raheem Sterling and Joe Allen a rest, bringing Jose Enrique and Suso into the starting eleven to fill Liverpool's left flank. The rest was also unsurprising; the remaining nine were the same as against Villa, albeit with a slight change in shape--Steven Gerrard occupied a deeper role in the midfield in the early-going, with Jonjo Shelvey playing just off (and sometimes alongside) Luis Suarez up top. Stewart Downing switched to the right flank, up and opposite from the fullback role he filled last Saturday.
The opening minutes weren't unfamiliar at all, with Liverpool pinning back their guests with some smart passing and dominance in possession. What was different was the amount of energy with which they played, however, and that they were able to convert early signs of encouragement into a goal.
A Gerrard corner found its way through a cluster of bodies(!) to Martin Skrtel, who controlled expertly before blasting a half-volley past a rooted Mark Schwarzer. There was nothing the Fulham goalkeeper could have done, and Ashkan Dejegah had to count himself fortunate that his attempt at a clearing header missed, as Skrtel's strike was hit about as firmly as you'll see.
Daniel Agger nearly extended Liverpool's lead after an extended spell of Liverpool possession--Gerrard's volley from a Luis Suarez cutback ricocheted back to the Uruguayan, who punched across goal to the unmarked central defender. The effort ballooned over the empty goalmouth, though, and continued efforts to extend the one-goal lead also went begging.
Thankfully another chance for Steven Gerrard was finished expertly, as the captain latched onto a perfect through-ball from Stewart Downing and slotted past Schwarzer for Liverpool's second. It was a brilliant moment for both--neither has been overly impressive this season, but in the opening forty-five both shined, and for them to combine to give the hosts a two-goal cushion heading into the half was a welcomed sight.
Martin Jol opted to bring on Hugo Rodallega at the break in hopes of giving Fulham more a threat in attack, but it was clear that the second-half would unfold similarly to the first, as Liverpool ensured one-way traffic en route to their third. It looked as though it was coming just two minutes after the restart when a deflected cross found an unmarked Luis Suarez at the far post, but the striker hooked his volley wide and posed no threat to Schwarzer's goal.
The man who delivered the cross would push the lead to 3-0 five minutes later--Stewart Downing drove up the right unchallenged, and after cutting in he arrowed a strike past Schwarzer at the near side to cap a banner day. No assists or goals in the Premier League in the year and half since joining, and all of a sudden he'd done both in the most impressive fifty minutes he'd produced in a Liverpool shirt.
There was little worth watching from there, as Fulham was ineffective in any foray forward, with the only sense of urgency coming from the impressive Kerim Frei. Liverpool's defense was comfortable from back to front, with nearly every member of the eleven proving capable without the ball. Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling came on with about twenty left to play, and the latter impressed with a number of bursting runs at a tired and exposed Fulham back line.
Suarez finished things off after a fine run and pass from Jose Enrique, getting the goal he'd been so frustratingly deprived of for the first ninety-odd minutes. Enrique's gentle touch back to the unmarked striker left a little work to do, but Suarez adjusted well and pushed a left-footed shot into the side netting to polish off a well-deserved win for Brendan Rodgers' side.
Fulham were objectively not good today, and while it doesn't take too much of the sheen off Liverpool's victory, it certainly merits mention. Toothless in attack and completely overrun at times, there was little fight left in them after Martin Skrtel's eighth-minute opener. Their best chance of the match came when it was far, far too late--Hugo Rodallega's free-kick that was well saved by Pepe Reina--and that it was answered immediately by a Liverpool goal was about as much as their performance deserved.
Just as the scoreline was as much as Liverpool's deserved. For as poorly as their visitors played, Liverpool were impressive and polished, displaying none of the indifference and lack of influence that was so disappointing last weekend. They controlled the run of play and the scoreline, and it's no surprise that converting their early dominance into goals tipped the scales even further into their favor.
It's only fair to praise Stewart Downing after his display, easily his most comprehensive and fruitful as a Liverpool player. He was incisive and dangerous on the wing, tracking back when needed and showing only one or two of the maddening moments we've associated with his tenure in a red shirt. One of the season's other more frustrating performers also came good; Steven Gerrard was asked to play deeper and more deliberate, and the captain was excellent in every aspect, getting a well-deserved goal and finally looking as though his spot in the eleven was deserved.
As did the rest of the squad, with Jonjo Shelvey recovering from an uncertain opening and Lucas showing signs of improvement after last weekend's struggles. Suso was composed and confident in possession on the left flank and through the middle, Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique were again superb, and Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger should have each had a goal to compliment another effective match in central defense.
After the disappointment against Aston Villa, it'd be hard to pick out any sources of frustration, and the only pieces worth picking out weren't ones that had any significant impact on the outcome. Brendan Rodgers' substitutions were questionable at best, as a twenty-minute run-out for two players most in need of rest made little sense, especially when Jordan Henderson's been so impressive.
Those decisions aren't worth lingering too long upon, however, and with a positively miserable fixture on the cards for Boxing Day, today's one worth savoring.