Fulham were treated as bit players last night as THEY had come hoping for a goal from Michael Owen, but by the end they were desperate for anybody to put the ball in the back of the net.
They were disappointed. Owen did not score his hundredth goal for his club and Liverpool extended their lead at the top of the FA Barclaycard Premiership to four points rather than the expected six. A goalless draw with Fulham was hardly the statement of intent that Anfield had been hoping for as the title chase gathers speed.
Liverpool hit the woodwork twice and the best chances fell to them, but their disjointed performance added fuel to the debate about their mode of achieving results. Gérard Houllier, their recovering manager, and Phil Thompson, his able caretaker, are growing increasingly sensitive about suggestions that this Liverpool represent a triumph of limited ambition, but their collective inability - indeed their unwillingness - to go for the jugular against Jean Tigana's clever team seemed to appal large sections of their supporters.
Owen, looking over-anxious to join men such as Roger Hunt, Ian Rush and Kevin Keegan in Liverpool's 100 club, spurned several clear chances and Steven Gerrard twice hit a post with almost identical glancing headers. Their general nervousness, though, suggested that the pressure of being up there to be knocked down is beginning to inhibit them.
The news of Manchester United's bonanza at Old Trafford was relayed to an emptying stadium like a distant echo of a half-forgotten foe, a worrying reminder of what their tormentors of the past decade are capable of achieving. If much of the criticism aimed at Liverpool has been unfair, they and their players must learn to appreciate that greater scrutiny is merely one of the side-effects of their elevated status.
"It was a frustrating night," Thompson said. "We had some great chances and (Edwin) Van der Sar made some great saves. If he wasn't six foot nine, he would never have got to some of them. We were a little bit erratic tonight, a little bit anxious. The crowd was anxious, too.
"We showed we weren't a one-dimensional team, though, and I'm sure we disappointed a lot of people by coming out and attacking them from the start."
In fact, Liverpool had been outplayed for much of the first half. Fulham, as is their custom, had teased them and toyed with them, passing the ball through them in neat, intricate patterns and using the pace of Luis Boa Morte to alarm them on the left. If Liverpool have been accused of knowing the value of substance but not style, Fulham play with almost unmatched elegance and touch. Only their substance, their ability to make their possession count, is in question. For all their economy of movement and technical expertise, they did not fashion a chance worthy of mention.
Gerrard, who had drawn groans of censure from the crowd with some careless passing, ruined Fulham's clearest opportunity when he halted Boa Morte's surging run with a perfectly timed tackle. A mazy run by Louis Saha soon after foundered on the edge of the penalty area, but somehow the ball squirmed through to John Collins, whose toe-poke was gathered comfortably by Jerzy Dudek.
Then, just as the crowd were growing restless, the home side burst into life. After the drought, suddenly there was a flood of chances. They all belonged to Liverpool and most of them to Owen. First, he turned sharply ten yards out and hit a weak left-foot shot straight at Van der Sar and then, five minutes before the interval, he ran on to a clever through-ball from Danny Murphy and saw his shot spiral up off the Holland goalkeeper's legs and land on the roof of the net.
Quite how eager Owen was to reach his century became apparent on the stroke of half- time, when he eschewed the opportunity to pass to the unmarked Patrik Berger and chose to go for goal himself. His shot was blocked again, this time by a defender.
Gerrard came closer to breaking the deadlock. He glanced a header from Gary McAllister's free kick on to the foot of a post and then cushioned a clearance on his chest and volleyed a lob goalwards. It seemed that Van der Sar was beaten at last, but somehow he managed to retreat towards his line and produce a wonderful arcing save.
Owen nearly turned provider soon after the interval, escaping the challenge of Alain Goma on the right flank and crossing for Emile Heskey. The forward, arriving at speed, needed only to apply a touch, but the ball went through his legs. A minute later, McAllister and Gerrard combined again and were frustrated once more. Gerrard got to the ball first and glanced another header goalwards. This time it rebounded off the inside of a post, not the outside, before bouncing away.
Liverpool's failure to make the breakthrough and their general lack of fluency began to enrage their supporters and their disquiet increased just after an hour had elapsed when Boa Morte nearly put Fulham in front. The Portugal forward ran at the Liverpool defence from the halfway line and outstripped Stephane Henchoz and Sami Hyypia but pulled his shot just wide.
Fulham obviously did not read the script as It was supposed to be the night when Michael Owen joined an elite group of Liverpool centurions.
But for once the little man failed to deliver and he goes to Stamford Bridge on Sunday still searching for his 100th goal for the Kop. It was not for want of trying that it did not happen last night but it did raise one pertinent question - if Owen does not score for Liverpool, who will?
Despite protests from assistant boss Phil Thompson that they are more than a counter-attacking team, even he cannot deny there was a noticeable lack of width in their play against a Fulham side inspired by keeper Edwin Van der Thompson admitted: "We can play better than that - it is two points lost.
"We surprised a few people and proved we are not a one-dimensional team. We went out and attacked and, if one goal had gone in, we might have seen a few more.
"It was frustrating. We hit the post a couple of times, had some great chances and their keeper made fantastic saves. "But it was not the flowing football we produced on Saturday and we were a bit erratic. "It was difficult for Michael because so much has been said and written about him this week."
It is never easy to break down Fulham. They are experts at keeping possession and rely on the pace of Luis Boa Morte to unlock defences, plus the occasional wizardry of Louis Saha.
While Owen looks to Emile Heskey for support, Fulham had more variation in their attacking play until they were forced on to the back foot. Significantly, they are the first team to prevent Liverpool scoring at Anfield this season. They also kept a clean sheet for 90 minutes in the Worthington Cup last year before succumbing in extra-time.
Liverpool took an eternity to get going and 29 minutes had passed before they registered a shot on target. Inevitably, it came from hotshot Owen. That sparked them into life and they finished the first half looking like Premiership leaders, with four clear-cut chances which could have settled the game. Only the long legs of Van der Sar denied Owen before an audacious back-header from Steven Gerrard grazed the outside of the post.
Fulham had made a confident start, underlining why they were unbeaten in their previous seven Premiership games.
Boa Morte was the dangerman and it took a last-ditch tackle from Gerrard to prevent the Portuguese flier opening the scoring in the 20th minute.
An Alain Goma header was punched away by Jerzy Dudek and a piledriver from Steed Malbranque flew over before Liverpool got into their stride.
When Owen cleverly tricked his way past Goma, his low right-foot cross was begging for a finishing touch from Heskey but the big man failed to connect from six yards out. A minute later, a 30-yard free-kick from Gary McAllister took a deflection before sailing through the Fulham defence and hitting the post, much to the relief of Van der Sar.
But the Fulham keeper demonstrated his value to the team with further saves from Owen and Danny Murphy.
Liverpool extended their unbeaten run in the Premiership to 11 games but it was scant consolation for dropping two points against a team they were expected to beat.
And with seconds left, Fulham so nearly poured salt into the wound with a late winner. Dudek held John Collins' free-kick and Steve Finnan fired across goal after a smart move down the right.
Fulham boss Jean Tigana conceded: "We were a bit lucky when Liverpool hit the post twice. They are a difficult team to play against because they press you all the time. "We are progressing step by step but you get less space to play against the better teams." And he joked: "Owen is a fantastic player - is it possible to take him on loan?"
If Liverpool were disappointed, they can at least claim they took a point from one of their least-effective displays.
As for Fulham, ask any promoted team their objective and they will say survival.
Fulham have demonstrated they are in the Premiership to stay. That will do for starters.
The Boy Wonder will have to wait to join the Hundred Club. Michael Owen, perched tantalisingly on 99 club goals, and his Liverpool team-mates ran aground here last night as Fulham claimed a deserved point on chilly Merseyside.
Liverpool could have few complaints. Though the inspirational Steven Gerrard struck the woodwork twice, the visitors, slick and sophisticated throughout, were worthy of reward.
"It was a frustrating night," said Liverpool's caretaker manager Phil Thompson. "I know it wasn't the flowing football we showed at the weekend, and we were a little bit erratic and anxious in possession, but we did everything but score."
That told some of the story. Liverpool played in fits and starts, whipping up a 10-minute storm just before the interval which was sustained by the coach's half-time ear-bashing into the early stages of the second period. But had Fulham capitalised on their early superiority or, indeed, had Steve Finnan or Barry Hayles accepted late chances, the Reds' lead at the top would not have looked as healthy as four points.
Where once Fulham came expecting to be thumped - they lost a League Cup tie 10-0 here 15 years ago - they now arrive believing themselves to be equals. This display, an eighth unbeaten match, suggested as much.
Fulham were neat and composed, with Steed Malbranque a constant threat, loitering menacingly behind Hayles and Louis Saha. The latter's neat pirouette away from Sami Hyypia early on was followed by a sharp skimming shot which Jerzy Dudek dived to save. Saha's quick feet eventually mesmerised even himself, with John Collins pouncing on the loose ball before blazing a shot over the bar.
Liverpool were visibly rattled. Their passing became sloppy as busy opponents hassled and cramped their style, with Collins's eagerness to wander inside congesting midfield and stifling the home side's attacking intent.
Yet, as half-time approached, Liverpool belatedly stirred. Jamie Carragher's throw was flicked on by Emile Heskey for Owen to spin and shoot, with Edwin van der Saar flopping on to the shot. The striker then tore on to Danny Murphy's pass but, with only the goalkeeper to beat, hit his legs.
As Owen drew a blank, Gerrard tried his luck, leaping to flick Gary McAllister's free-kick on to a post. Van der Saar watched helplessly as the ball spun to safety but he was equal to Gerrard's subsequent clever lob, tipping it over. "If he wasn't 6ft 9in he'd have had no chance," said Thompson.
Fulham have not conceded a league goal in more than 6 hours. That reflects well on Van der Saar, gargantuan throughout, but he was helpless again as Owen bamboozled Alain Goma and fizzed the ball across the six-yard box. Heskey, with Andy Melville in attendance, air-kicked in front of the open goal. Then McAllister and Gerrard repeated their dose from the first half.
"We were lucky," conceded Fulham's manager Jean Tigana, "but we adapted our game; we usually play a very offensive style but we knew Liverpool are strong on the counter, so I made the team slow down the tempo. This was encouraging. The team is progressing step by step and it was always going to be difficult in the first season, so to leave with a point is satisfying."
WHEN Sir Alex Ferguson said the Premiership's leading clubs would have to cut one another's throats to give Manchester United any hope of retaining their Premiership crown, he doubtless imagined Fulham would be involved in the bloodshed. Considered second best prior to this contest, they were worth their point at Anfield last night.
If Liverpool are to end their 12-year search for the title they once considered their own, they will have to keep performances such as this to a minimum. Careless in possession and cautious in attack, a failure to seize control cost them the chance to restore their six-point lead at the top of the table.
For Michael Owen that was particularly frustrating. The scene was set for his 100th Liverpool goal, but a player who has scored 25 in his last 22 appearances failed to add to that tally and so was left rueing the many opportunities he had.
Owen's obvious determination to reach the 100 mark proved costly in the opening few minutes, his attempt to meet a John Arne Riise cross denying the better placed Emile Heskey the opportunity to threaten Fulham's goal. Owen's header was weak where Heskey's might have been struck with rather more power.
It has often been said that finishing above Manchester United in the Premiership should enable a side to win the championship, and the fact that Fulham arrived one place ahead of the champions did seem to breed a certain degree of confidence.
A team new to the top flight appeared not the slightest bit daunted by the prospect of facing the leaders, a useful mix of industry and invention giving Liverpool's defence something to think about as the two teams sized up one another. It was from a Louis Saha shot that Jerzy Dudek made the first save of the match.
Liverpool appeared rather subdued by comparison, and it was only when Steven Gerrard made a breathtaking tackle to dispossess Luis Boa Morte just inside Liverpool's penalty area that the crowd began to show any real interest in an encounter of some importance.
Fulham, nevertheless, maintained the initiative, and had it not been for Steed Malbranque's almost embarrassing inability to deliver the final ball they might well have surprised their hosts by taking the lead. Malbranque failed to play a fairly simple one-two with Barry Hayles, and then struck one of the worst free kicks seen here for some time. Such was the desire for some entertainment, even the Liverpool fans groaned.
Only when Liverpool earned a throw-in deep in Fulham's half in the 31st minute did they show any signs of improvement. Jamie Carragher launched the ball into Fulham's box, Heskey flicked on and Owen spun to shoot straight at Edwin van der Sar.
Fulham continued to create chances of their own, but to their dismay it was to Malbranque that they fell. Again, his touch was less than satisfactory.
Owen, at least, was shooting in the direction of goal, but having seized on a delightful pass from Danny Murphy discovered Van der Sar standing between him and his moment of glory. The Holland international blocked Owen's strike with an outstretched leg, and the ball looped on to the roof of the net.
As this less than enthralling encounter drifted towards the interval Liverpool began to gain momentum, a post denying Gerrard after meeting a Gary McAllister free kick with a well-directed header.
But Liverpool's best chance to strike the first blow came moments after that. Owen was through and Patrik Berger was perfectly placed to receive a pass and score, but Owen chose instead to go it alone and saw his effort diverted wide by Steve Finnan. Van der Sar was in action again, hurling himself to scoop a Gerrard lob away.
Owen showed the more generous side of his nature after the interval, but even that failed to produce the goal Liverpool so desperately desired. Having skipped away from Alain Goma, he watched as the fast-advancing Heskey arrived a fraction of a second too late to make the necessary connection to his cross.
This was beginning to turn into a frustrating evening for the BBC's team of the year, another Gerrard header from a McAllister free kick once again hitting the woodwork before being cleared to safety by Finnan.
Fulham put on Legwinski for Davis on 58 minutes, but it was Owen again on the hour who fired a header from Carragher's cross straight at van der Sar. But Fulham's pace and drive caught out Liverpool again when the speedy Boa Morte surged forward on a 60-yard run to drill a low right-footed shot inches wide of the far post.
Such was the pressure Liverpool were starting to exert, it seemed a goal was inevitable. Murphy was presented with a chance with Van der Sar cleared only as far as Berger, but the Fulham goalkeeper recovered quickly and tipped Murphy's shot over his crossbar.
Fulham stopped Michael Owen in his tracks as the Liverpool star battled for his 100th goal for the club - holding the league leaders to a 0-0 draw.
It was supposed to be the night Liverpool stretched their lead with Owen writing himself into the club's record books, but Fulham had not read the script.
They produced a display of endeavour and excellent technique to more than deserve their point.
Liverpool are four points ahead of Arsenal at the top of the Premiership despite a goalless draw against Fulham.
Michael Owen was looking to bag his 100th Liverpool goal and on his recent emphatic form few would have bet against him.
But then few could have expected such and inspired performance by keeper Edwin Van der Sar.
The Dutchman was outstanding and kept his side in the game with a series of spectacular saves.
Liverpool assistant-manager Phil Thompson will be frustrated that his side failed to further extend their lead at the top.
But it wasn't for the want of trying as the Reds threw all that they had at a gallant and entertaining Fulham side.
Only a series of outstanding saves from Van der Sar in the Fulham net kept Liverpool at bay.
Owen turned his marker after an Emile Heskey flick on but his low shot was comfortably saved.
Minutes later Fulham midfielder Steed Malbranque blasted a good chance high into the Kop.
This appeared to spur on the home side as they began to dominate for the first time.
And to the delight of the home fans Liverpool surged forward with an urgency that they had so far lacked.
But the flying Dutchman Van der Sar was in inspired form.
After 40 minutes Danny Murphy put Owen through but his well struck shot was saved by the feet of the Fulham keeper.
A Gary McAllister free-kick minutes later was neatly flicked on by Steven Gerrard but Van der Sar somehow managed to push his goalbound effort round the post.
And seconds before the break he was at it again with an acrobatic save from a dipping Gerrard volley.
In the second half Liverpool hit the post with a Gerrard header following a McAllister free-kick. It was the first time Van der Sar appeared to beaten but the woodwork came to his rescue.