Tuesday 27 June 2017

Pantsil gift adds fuel to Reds revival

LIVERPOOL 1
FULHAM 0

John Pantsil of Fulham clashes with Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson of Liverpool at Anfield last night. Photo: Getty Images
John Pantsil of Fulham clashes with Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson of Liverpool at Anfield last night. Photo: Getty Images

Rory Smith

Richard Keys was right: enduring an assistant referee who does not understand the offside rule is the kind of thing to drive Kenny Dalglish potty.

The Liverpool manager, though, found himself with reason to complain at the performance of Mike McDonough, a man, rather than a woman, and at least found his anger cooled by John Pantsil doing him a favour.

Quite how furious the 59-year-old would have been had McDonough's decision to rule out a Fernando Torres strike for offside after just six minutes cost his side a victory on a bad-tempered, disjointed evening would, no doubt, have matched that of Keys and his sidekick, Andy Gray, at the sight of a woman holding a flag.

He would have been justified, too: McDonough's was a poor judgment, Torres racing on to Raul Meireles' perfectly-weighted through-ball, timing his run to perfection, before clipping past David Stockdale.

Explosion

Anfield erupted; and then, with the sight of that erroneous flag, so did Dalglish. That explosion would have continued long into the night -- since his return to his former employers, Dalglish has shown a predilection for challenging the efficacy of officials -- had Pantsil not found himself the victim of the most miserable luck, inadvertently helping the ball over his own goal-line and firing Liverpool into seventh place in the Premier League table.

When Torres wheeled away to milk the applause of the Anfield Road end, this looked the sort of evening Dalglish's appointment was supposed to inspire. Liverpool, free-wheeling, swarmed forward, the ball at their feet, a song in their heart. Fleetingly, it looked like the buzz was back.

Meireles, his campaign to ensure Liverpool do not end the season totally empty-handed by lifting the January player of the month crown, saw a header flicked away by David Stockdale, before Torres ballooned over when a flowing move down the hosts' right flank deserved much more.

Slowly, though, that momentum ebbed. Fulham, their intention to staunch Liverpool's flow evident from Mark Hughes' decision to deploy three central midfielders, grew more comfortable, and Anfield more restless.

The moments to raise the pulse still came -- Glen Johnson cutting inside from his left-back berth and forcing Stockdale into an impressive fingertip save -- but rather than excitement, more often than not they were down to nerves.

Wolves, Blackpool, Northampton: Dalglish might have vowed to make Anfield a fortress again, but too often this season it has been stormed. The battlements will not be rebuilt immediately.

So Fulham, the threat at their rear dissipated, began to issue their own sorties, most notably through the languid, menacing Moussa Dembele. It was the Belgian who wasted the guests' best chance of the opening period, firing straight at Pepe Reina after Daniel Agger failed to intercept Andy Johnson's low cross, but that aberration aside, he provided Fulham with by far their most consistent threat.

He was not alone, though: Clint Dempsey, too, drew Reina into action, the Spanish international parrying the American's shot after Martin Kelly, otherwise excellent again, presented the ball to his opponent on the edge of his own penalty area. Those watching would have ample reason to comprehend why Dalglish has identified Luis Suarez, as well as Charlie Adam, as such key reinforcements, and ample reason to exhort Fenway Sports Group, the club's owners, to forget their eminently reasonable desire to find value for money in what is essentially an unreasonable world.

Suarez, the Uruguayan forward, would provide Liverpool with added teeth; Adam with extra eyes. Without that infusion of fresh talent, even at the exorbitant cost that would tempt Ajax and Blackpool to sell their prize assets, this side will continue to labour.

Liverpool even managed to take the lead without diminishing the need for reinforcements, Pantsil's own-goal one of the strangest, and most fortuitous, likely to be seen this season as Brede Hangeland deflected Torres' shot on to the post before it ricocheted off both the Ghanaian and Chris Baird on its way over the line.

Sadly for Pantsil, his evening was not destined to get any quieter. First, he squared up to Gerrard after a sequence of play which entailed five fouls, committed by players in both white and red, in as many seconds, then being booked for a collision with Johnson and a brief spat with Agger.

That Liverpool were clearly so edgy was telling; their failure to score a second, decisive goal condemning Dalglish's side to an anxious final 20 minutes.

Slowly, but surely, they committed all of the same errors which so often undermined them under Rafael Benitez and then Roy Hodgson: Dalglish may rank as royalty, but he is no wizard. Those wounds are yet to heal.

They sat back, inviting pressure; they aimed long balls hopefully down the channels, when possession was key; they grew lacklustre in the pass and weary in the challenge. Fulham, for all their endemic travel sickness, did all they could to seize their chance.

Aaron Hughes saw one header tipped wide by the flying form of Reina, Dembele narrowly failed to convert when another Danny Murphy free-kick caused chaos in a teetering Liverpool back-line.

Fingernails were bitten to the quick until, at last, Lee Probert gave Dalglish what he had been waiting for; an official, finally, did the Liverpool manager a favour. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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