Sunday 25 February 2018

Downing dazzles as Reds cruise past Fulham

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard celebrates with Luis Suarez
Liverpool's Steven Gerrard celebrates with Luis Suarez

This was one of those evenings when the stars aligned for Liverpool . . . and Stewart Downing finally scored in the Premier League. Miracles do happen. Well, it is Christmas.

It was certainly one of Liverpool's most dazzling performances as Fulham were imperiously brushed aside. And it was no coincidence that it also came with probably the best display of Liverpool's biggest star, Steven Gerrard, for quite some time.

Here was the Gerrard of legend: pinging passes, snapping into tackles, eating up ground – and scoring with panache. That he was aided and abetted by Downing, previously such an ineffective figure since his £20m move from Aston Villa, was the greater surprise. His goal was the first he has struck in the league for Liverpool. Not Drowning, but waving.

Downing can go in January – manager Brendan Rodgers wants him out, but surely not if he plays like this even if, in fairness, Liverpool will not often face opponents as drained of confidence and belief as Fulham, who beat them twice last season.

How Liverpool have craved an early goal. How emphatically they achieved it. After Jonjo Shelvey's flick was deflected for a corner, Gerrard took the kick which evaded Daniel Agger's leap and landed at the feet of his central defensive partner, Martin Skrtel. He controlled instantly and hammered the crispest of right-foot volleys into the net.

So often Liverpool's early dominance had not reaped such a reward and then, soon after, Downing, yes Downing, almost added a second with another well-struck drive which was tipped around the post by Mark Schwarzer – even though no corner was awarded.

Nerves were settled. Fulham, on a dire sequence of results, had come to contain and then strike by stealth with Dimitar Berbatov as a lone forward.

He was booed – maybe a recognition of his threat, but more likely his Manchester United association – and he almost then got on the end of a near-post cross as Sascha Riether too easily beat Suso.

Berbatov was Fulham's source of hope although maybe manager Martin Jol would have been better served by being bolder and using the pace of Hugo Rodallega, too.

But the game opened up. Agger missed an open goal from Luis Suarez's fiercely-struck low cross. Riether, just, toe-poked Suarez's shrewd through ball to safety as Suso ran clear. An even cuter pass, this time from Downing, did lead to a second Liverpool goal. The winger picked out Gerrard's driving run from outside the box and the captain drove the ball back across goal to beat Schwarzer.

Fulham were in danger, if it hadn't already happened, of being overwhelmed and Suarez was left pulling his shirt up to his face in frustration as the ball broke to him – only for the striker to drag a low shot wide.

Suarez got another sight of goal – this time though, after controlling Glen Johnson's threaded pass, he was pushed wide and his eventual shot was easily saved.

Home form has been tough for Liverpool this campaign and Rodgers decided to follow the announcement of Raheem Sterling's new contract by resting him, along with another of his young tyros, Joe Allen. As Fulham's resistance continued to crumble, that third goal came – and Downing claimed it.

The brio with which Downing took his goal was all the more stunning as it was so unfamiliar. He collected possession on the right, ran at John Arne Riise and was allowed to come back inside on his left foot and strike a shot that was too powerful for Schwarzer at the near post.

Fulham were beaten but Rodallega, a half-time replacement, went close when he rose to meet a cross only for the ball to deflect off his head. Despite Liverpool's dominance it served as a warning, although at least now Fulham were showing some attacking intent and Berbatov had some support. Soon after, Reina had to push out a low shot from Ashkan Dejagah.

Liverpool steadied and normal service resumed with Shelvey and then Downing going close from distance before Suarez side-footed home in added-time for his 11th league goal of the season – equalling his tally from the whole of last season.


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