Steven Gerrard does not deserve to be branded as the player who cost Liverpool their Champions League dream.
He has worked incredibly hard for the Anfield men now for months as Liverpool's terrible season has unfolded. But his missed spot kick early in the second half - Michael Owen clearly not keen on the duties anymore - will go down as one of the darkest moments of his and Liverpool's season.
It was the one lifeline they should not have spurned as the battled to overcome a defiant Fulham who stopped Gerard Houllier's men in their tracks muchthe same way as Charlton had done on Easter Monday. It has left Liverpool with just one point from their last three games and Anfield gripped in misery and condemnation. The fans were so stunned at the end they could barely raise a voice to boo off a team who may now have gifted fourth spot to Newcastle.
However hard Liverpool tried, and they were at least better than they were against Charlton, they just could not breakthrough and Fulham had the likes ofIan Pearce and Alain Goma to thank for much of their defiance. Vladimir Smicer and Bruno Cheyrou came in for El-Hadji Diouf and Emile Heskey, Houllier's attempt to improve the invention and passing quality after the Charlton disaster on Easter Monday.
Twice in the opening minutes Steed Malbranque created space for Collins John, the youngster's pace exposing Stephane Henchoz and Sami Hyypia, and seeds ofdoubt spread around the stadium like wildfire. Smicer had a long range effort and a six yard box effort charged down, while Owen almost took advantage of a Gerrard pass in the box and a 20 yarder thatflashed wide. Dietmar Hamann also fired wide, but Liverpool's work waspredictable and unsure. The game quickly became a carbon copy of the Charlton match. Fulham sat deep, looking to catch Liverpool on the break while the home side toiled and fretted,searching for a way through. One of those Fulham breaks saw Moritz Volz get away, and his edge of the box effort deflected onto the bar by Hyypia. Cheyrou's wanderings frequently left Owen on his own against three defenders, Ian Pearce, Alain Goma and Carlos Bocanegra, and when his runs were spotted the delivery was just not good enough.
Fulham were unfortunate not to take the lead twice before the break. First when Luis Boa Morte turned Hyypia and blazed in a 25 yarder that Jerzy Dudekinitially looked like he was shaping to catch, but it clearly moved in the airand the Polish 'keeper opted to deflect it over the bar. Malbranque then broke on the right, found John unmarked and Liverpool had to thank Dudek for a point blank save and then John Arne Riise for getting in theway of John's follow up on the line.
Liverpool then wasted a lifeline four minutes into the second half. Bocanegra was penalised for fouling Cheyrou, and then booked for kicking the ball away,the free kick being moved 10 yards nearer the box by referee Steve Bennett. When Gerrard's free kick fizzed into the box it was hacked clear, and, in Bennett's eyes, then handled by Bobby Petta just inside the box. Bennett pointed to the spot and up stepped Gerrard to take the kick.
But Gerrard's low drive was saved by Van Der Sar and hacked away from Liverpool skipper's toes as he tried to make amends. John was booked in the resulting turmoil for more dissent. On the hour Cheyrou was hauled off to allow Milan Baros into the front line alongside Owen. Gerrard's next corner caused chaos in the box and Harry Kewell's close range hook was deflected for another corner as Liverpool started to fight for their lives, belatedly.
Baros' pace and running caused immediate problems and he won another corner. The ball was cleared to Jamie Carragher and his misplaced drive went straight toKewell, who saw his effort crack into the near post. Goma was the next booked for dissent on 72 minutes before Fulham brought on ex-Everton striker Brian McBride and Junichi Inamoto for John and Bocanegrawhile Liverpool sent on Diouf and Heskey for Smicer and Kewell, Houlliersearching desperately now for some sort of inspiration up front.
By now it was Gerrard inspiring a barrage. He sent Baros charging away with a 30 yard pass, and the young Czech laid the ball back for Owen, whose eightyarder was deflected wide by a desperate Volz block. Pearce blocked a Heskey hook right on the post, amid more appeals for a penalty for hand ball. Malbranque got away on the left and created a chance for Petta, who managed to hook over from six yards. Baros had another effort blocked by Pearce and Riise fired over from 20 yards, but Liverpool could not force a winner.