It wasn't especially pretty, but it was enthralling. Nicolas Anelka's goal from their first attack and Jari Litmanen's clincher from their last earned Liverpool three points which, briefly at least, elevated them to second in the Premiership. But how hard they were made to fight by Fulham, who, through a combination of ill-luck, poor finishing and the form of Jerzy Dudek, did everything but score.
If Liverpool's failure to return victorious from Tuesday's trek to Istanbul effectively ended their European season, they still have the coveted Premiership title to chase. Lacklustre displays against Galatasaray and a derby hiccup against Everton suggested a certain weary ennui. Yet, this victory, following triumphs at Ipswich, Leeds and Old Trafford, meant they had succeeded in four consecutive Premiership trips.
Indeed, for all the perception that this Liverpool are more dour than daring, a 13-0 aggregate suggests they could scarcely have been more swashbuckling were their French manager Alexander Dumas.
With Gerard Houllier provisionally scheduled to return to Liverpool's helm at the Nou Camp on March 13, assistant manager Phil Thompson is on the last lap of a task he never aspired to.
For all his deference to Houllier, however, Thompson's selections are rarely timid and even with Jamie Carragher suspended and Steven Gerrard again injured, the job-sitter shuffled again. Dudek returned after a groin strain, but Michael Owen was left on the bench as Liverpool's first league victory at Craven Cottage since 1949 was secured with Anelka and Emile Heskey up front.
"A hard victory," noted Thompson. "We fought magnificently and with great discipline. Remember that Fulham are a good team and, right now, things aren't going for them."
Fulham's assistant manager Christian Damiano concurred, albeit gracelessly: "We were unlucky. They were lucky. I can't fault the players because they gave everything, but that result is hard to accept."
In truth, too many home draws and too few away goals have consigned Fulham to mid-table respectability rather than the Uefa Cup shakedown.
In the 13th minute, Liverpool struck. Anelka collected Danny Murphy's pass just outside the penalty area. He instinctively shot for goal, but his drive was halted by Rufus Brevett. Second time, there would be no reprieve for Fulham: Anelka reacted with quicksilver guile to launch an exquisite low curler around Edwin Van der Sar's despairing right hand.
What had been a rather unfocused affair was galvanised as Fulham powered their way back. Luis Boa Morte began to exploit young Steven Wright's hesitancy in Liverpool's rearguard and in the 16th minute crossed for Steed Malbranque to head across the penalty area 'D' and Louis Saha to crash a 20-yard volley against Dudek's bar.
Soon there would be a chance for Steve Marlet, foiled by a thrilling last-ditch tackle from Stephane Henchoz which resulted in a gash across the Swiss defender's calf in the 21st minute. Two minutes later, Boa Morte swept past Wright, only to drive against Dudek's shoulder and watch in anguish as Sami Hyypia headed the goalbound deflection over the Pole's charmed bar.
As half-time beckoned, Fulham's often sloppy distribution offered Liverpool respite from the white-shirted onslaught and had Vladimir Smicer not flailed wildly when well-placed in stoppage time, the hosts may have needed rope and crampons to climb their second-half mountain.
Instead, they tried new methods to scale it. Boa Morte switched to the left and soon he was causing Abel Xavier similar difficulties to those which had ensured Wright's uncomfortable first period. Liverpool, not the Premiership's most parsimonious defence by fluke, held their nerve, defended heroically and broke menacingly.
After 58 minutes, a poor Alain Goma clearance was intercepted by Murphy, who released Anelka: this time, the perenially ice-cool Frenchman turned hot-headed and sliced into the crowd.
Fulham, though, have more self-respect than to concede and were goals awarded for possession they would have been cantering after the 60-minute mark, as Dudek thwarted Saha, Boa Morte and Goma. Hyypia did wonderfully well to block a Lee Clark piledriver, but for all their pluck, Fulham were soon reduced to replacing the exhausted Boa Morte with the more artisan Barry Hayles.
Heskey almost turned Anelka's low cross past Van der Sar in the 77th minute, but immediately before Litmanen's moment, Fulham finally created a seemingly unmissable opportunity when the hitherto peripheral Marlet found himself clear against Dudek, but shot wide of goalkeeper and goal.
The cruellest blow of all sealed Fulham's third successive defeat right at the end. From well within his own half, Xavier hoofed a clearance high and far. Van Der Sar, acting as a sweeper some 50 yards out of his goal, stood still as Litmanen headed the ball past him, hurtled forward and handsomely rolled home from an acute angle 15 yards out. The two-goal margin went against natural justice.
The Fulham assistant manager, Christian Damiano, describes Liverpool as 'a very modern side', but there was something thoroughly old-fashioned in the way they eked out this win. An early poached goal stubbornly defended, the victory then sealed in injury time, was vintage Reds from the 1970's.
Fulham, seeking to get up to date themselves, were game enough but were shown how far they still have to go. Nicolas Anelka gave Liverpool a lead against the run of play, before Jari Litmanen secured it against the run of play. In between, the visitors repelled all that could be thrown at them to make it eight Premiership games without a defeat and maintain their title challenge. For the task, for which they were again without the injured Steven Gerrard, they rested Michael Owen, starting with Anelka.
It was a selection that paid early dividends. Fulham had looked lively early on, passing and moving sharply going forward, but Liverpool soon found their back door ajar. Danny Murphy's ball forward picked out Anelka and after his right-foot shot had been blocked, and with Rufus Brevett and Alain Goma hesitating, he collected the rebound before striding on into the penalty area and curling in a left-footer that Edwin Van Der Sar could only touch into the net.
Fulham quickly summoned a rousing response, clearly following their manager Jean Tigana's philoso phy of believing in their approach, no matter the circumstances of the game. They very nearly had an instant equaliser, indeed, from a flowing one-touch move. Sean Davis chipped the ball up to Steve Marlet and from his header down, Steed Malbranque laid the ball off to Louis Saha whose instant volley from 20 yards hit the Liverpool crossbar.
Soon after, Luis Boa Morte put Marlet through, and it took a brave tackle from Stephane Henchoz, who sustained a gashed shin for his trouble, to halt him. Marlet then found Boa Morte with a raking pass inside the Liverpool left-back, Stephen Wright, and forced Jerzy Dudek, returning after injury, into a good save.
Liverpool weathered the squall, however - helped by losing Davis from their midfield to an injury - and the game settled into a familiar pattern, Fulham probing for an opening, Liverpool keeping their settled shape and waiting for an opportunity to pounce, having dragged the opposition forward. It was not hard to see how their reputation for being a counter-attacking team had grown.
Boa Morte and Malbranque switched wings at the start of the second half to try and pose Liverpool and new problem, but Liverpool did not seem unduly disturbed, when Boa Morte did get round his fellow Portuguese Abel Xavier and stumbled, he was booked for diving. Other attacks frequently foundered on Stephane Henchoz, oft maligned but a rock at the heart of defence yesterday. And when Henchoz did cause danger for his side, inadvertently deflecting Saha's cross goalwards, Liverpool always had the agile Dudek, who also saved well Goma's header, to rescue the situation.
At the other end, meanwhile, though their raids were sporadic, Liverpool always carried a threat, particularly through Anelka's pace. Murphy forced Van Der Sar into a flying, one-handed save with a curling shot, then supplied Anelka with a pass that the Frenchman shot wide. Emile Heskey also looked likely to score from Anelka's low cross but scooped the ball wide.
Finally the second came when Fulham discovered how how dangerous are Liverpool when the opposition is on the attack. Xavier's hoofed clearance caught Van Der Sar out of his goal and Jari Litmanen nipped in ahead of him, squeezing the ball home from a narrow angle.
A second earlier than it came would have eased any anxiety for Liverpool, but even at only one up, they rarely looked uncomfortable, save for John Arne Riise, that is, who was jeered all afternoon for having chosen Liverpool in preference to a transfer to Fulham last summer, and save for a late moment when Marlet shot across goal with only Dudek to beat. They could even afford to bring on Nicky Barmby for the last 20 minutes, his first appearance since damaging ankle ligaments last October.
It was not just over the Seine that the Tricolore was flying proudly last night. Down by the Thames, the French were having a serious impact on association football, too. Though it may have been Louis Saha and Steed Malbranque among Fulham's six French players who caught the eye and demonstrated just how much the Londoners have progressed in their first season, it was a goal from that mercurial son of Gaul, Nicolas Anelka, which effectively won this contest between two French-managed clubs.
Jari Litmanen's late second goal merely calmed any added-time nerves that Liverpool may have suffered as Phil Thompson's men recorded a 10th away victory which propelled them to within a point of the top two.
With Michael Owen rested on the bench, Anelka was the focus for Liverpool's limited attacking forays and, apart from his 12th-minute goal, was a constant distraction to the home rearguard. "He's getting sharper all the time," Thompson acknowledged. "We all know about his skills, but his work rate was very high. The lad has been an absolute gem since he joined us. He has a special gift and I'm always excited when I see him one-on-one with people. His goal was very special."
It was certainly a neat piece of improvisation, although it came after an adventurous Fulham, their attack led by Saha and Steve Marlet, and with Luis Boa Morte and Malbranque willing and swift-running accomplices, had taken the early initiative.
In virtually Liverpool's first assault, the former Arsenal man, who is on loan from Paris St-Germain, attempted a right-footed effort from the edge of the area. It struck Rufus Brevett on the foot and while Fulham reacted hesitatingly the ball obligingly returned to Anelka, who opted for his left foot and curled a crafty effort into the far corner. It was the Frenchman's second Premiership goal, following his first in last Sunday's Liverpool derby.
Thereafter, this was an encounter that Fulham, spirited in their tackling and studious in their build-ups, might easily have won. But they failed, as so often this season, because they do not possess sufficient quality in their finishing. Fulham supporters were asked to vote for their man of the match by mobile phone and duly awarded the honour to Saha. How the fans must have yearned for the chance to vote for Anelka as several opportunities went begging.
Fulham's assistant manager, Christian Damiano, admitted: "We had four or five good chances and the goalkeeper was fantastic. But that's typical of our season. We need to have more power up front."
Liverpool, of course, have hardly been deficient in that department. They had scored 10 goals in their two previous Premiership away games and, by comparison, this was a sluggish, uninspiring performance. But then Thompson's team had undergone a radical transition in cultures as they moved from the torrid atmosphere of Galatasaray to the gentility of west London.
It may have been overstating a point to describe this as a victory of pragmatism, but if Liverpool can manage to secure the points on an afternoon when they are manifestly below their best, it bodes well for their championship chances. On such occasions they lean heavily on such figures as Sami Hyypia and Stéphane Henchoz. The centre-back pairing was a picture of authority throughout.
John Arne Riise was also prominent among the Liverpool rearguard, and the Fulham regulars took great delight in having the chance to vent their disapproval at the Norwegian who had opted for Anfield rather than here last summer. It must be a decision he regrets now...
After Anelka's goal, Fulham responded with style and were rewarded with not a little misfortune. Saha's sweet volley hit the bar. Then Marlet was thwarted only by an impeccable challenge from Henchoz, who sustained a nasty cut in the process.
Liverpool appeared vulnerable and Saha set up Boa Morte, but the Portuguese striker scooped the chance over the bar. There have been questions asked about Saha's ability to transfer his First Division prowess to the Premiership, but in the first half he was the bane of the Liverpool back four, and after one powerful run into the area was only denied by Jerzy Dudek, who had come in for the England under-21 international Chris Kirkland.
Soon after the interval, Boa Morte was cautioned for diving, joining Fulham's Sylvain Legwinski and Brevett, together with Liverpool's Stephen Wright and Hyypia in the referee's notebook.
Increasingly, the visitors threatened on the counter- attack and Danny Murphy forced a fine save from Edwin van der Sar before setting up Anelka, who, from an acute angle, buried his shot in the crowd. In between, Marlet directed a header narrowly wide.
Fulham's manager, Jean Tigana, brought on Barry Hayles for Boa Morte, while Thompson replaced Vladimir Smicer with Nick Barmby. It was the England man's first appearance after a lengthy absence. Anelka created a chance for Heskey, who failed to trouble Van der Sar, before making way for Litmanen.
In the closing minutes, Legwinski prised an opening for Marlet, but the striker dragged his effort wide of the far post. As the Frenchman was still wondering how he had missed, Abel Xavier cleared the ball down the flank. Van der Sar, well out of his area, challenged Litmanen but the little Finn eluded him before sliding the ball into an unprotected net. Some Finn. Some finish. Yesterday, that was the deciding factor.
News of the World
For all their troubles at Anfield, Liverpool still have no problem winning away from home.
This win over Fulham at Craven Cottage was their 10th in the Premiership this season and no other side - not even Manchester United - can better that figure.
It was also the sort of victory that wins titles and Liverpool had to defend for much of the game against Jean Tigana's stylish side.
Liverpool assistant manager Phil Thompson hailed goalscorers Nicolas Anelka and Jari Litmanen.
He said: "Nicolas is getting sharper all the time.
"You saw him today and for all his skills and everything, his work rate was of the highest order.
"He was chasing, harrying and trying to get in between people all the time.
"His goal was superb. He got on to it very quickly, controlled it well and put it in the far corner.
"It was difficult when he first came because he had not played many games.
"He did extra training and it was not a problem for the lad, he's been an absolute gem.
"I heard all the things, but you take people as you find them and Nicolas has been first class."
Thompson was just as glowing in his tribute to Litmanen and he feels the Finn, who is being linked with a summer move to Ajax, has not let his head drop even though his first-team chances have been limited recently.
He added: "He deserves his goal for his attitude.
"Its been difficult and a lot of people have been clamouring for Jari to be in the team and it's difficult to slot him in all the time.
"But his attitude and professionalism are absolutely first class.
"If you watch him in training, you would think a lot of players their heads would go down.
"But his doesn't and when he gets his chance he can slot right in.
Fulham assistant manager Christian Damiano felt Liverpool were lucky to win.
He claimed his side should have got a point at least and Louis Saha hit the bar, while Steve Marlet missed a great chance near the end when the score was 1-0.
He said: "I thought we were unlucky and Liverpool were lucky.
"I thought he minimum we deserved was a point and the players gave their maximum.
"We had three or four good chances and missed. Their keeper was fantastic and I thought we deserved something.
"I think this game is the picture of our season. When we could win games, we draw and when we could draw games, we lose.
"We have the capacity to play well and I think we have the third or fourth best defence, but we need to have more power up front."
Nicolas Anelka opened the scoring when he netted his third goal for the club and in stoppage time, as Fulham threw everyone forward in search of an equaliser, substitute Jari Litmanen scored their second.
After playing five matches for Liverpool last month, Michael Owen's hamstrings were given a breather against Fulham and the England striker started on the bench.
That handed Anelka a starting place alongside Emile Heskey and the Frenchman took full advantage to score after 13 minutes.
Danny Murphy found Anelka on the right-hand side of the area and his right-foot shot hit Rufus Brevett on the foot.
Anelka collected the rebound, advanced into the Fulham box and curled the ball home left-footed into the bottom far corner to register his third goal for the club.
Back came the Cottagers and Louis Saha volleyed against the crossbar before Stephane Henchoz made a superb tackle on Steve Marlet in the Liverpool area as the striker prepared to pull the trigger.
Fulham continued to create the better chances and Marlet released the recalled Luis Boa Morte down the left and when Jerzy Dudek partially saved his shot, Henchoz was on hand to head the loose ball over the top.
Fulham were forced to make an early reshuffle when Lee Clark, who has been out for over two months with an Achilles injury, came on in place of the injured Sean Davis, only to be replaced himself later on by John Collins.
Tigana's side maintained the pressure and Steed Malbranque wrong-footed Abel Xavier only for his drive to come off Henchoz's chest and go behind for a corner.
But for all Fulham's pressure, Liverpool's well-drilled backline refused to buckle.
Henchoz, at the heart of the Liverpool defence, was getting his head, body or whatever in the way of any Fulham attempt at goal.
Fulham thought they should have been awarded a penalty two minutes after the interval when Boa Morte went down under a challenge from Xavier.
But instead of pointing to the spot, referee Alan Wiley booked the Frenchman for diving to the fury of the home fans.
It seemed a harsh decision and Xavier had been leaning on Boa Morte with his left arm.
The game opened up in the second half and and Edwin van der Sar denied Liverpool a second when he touched Murphy's curling shot around the left-hand post.
With just under 20 minutes left, Nicky Barmby replaced Vladimir Smicer to make his first appearance since injuring his ankle ligaments in October.
Then in stoppage time, Litmanen, who had come on for Anelka, nodded Xavier's long ball beyond van der Sar, who was stranded outside his box, and netted from the tight angle on the right to seal Liverpool's fifth win in their last six league games.
Phil Thompson sometimes bristles at the suggestion that the Liverpool he supervises in Gerard Houllier's absence are less than wholeheartedly cavalier. He must have enjoyed the awe-struck silence while they were scoring four goals at Leeds and six at Ipswich. But what can he expect when they win matches like this?
On the other hand, what is wrong with a team who can emerge triumphant from 10 of 16 away matches in the Premiership, the most recent on a ground where only Manchester United and Arsenal had hitherto taken all three points? The answer is that we shall be able to assess whether Liverpool have the balance right when they have completed their nine remaining fixtures, six of which are on the home soil where at times they have stung like butterflies.
They defended superbly against Fulham, Stephane Henchoz giving his customary masterclass as they protected an early lead obtained by Nicolas Anelka, and absorbed mounting pressure in the second half before the outcome was settled in the closing minutes. Steve Marlet scooped across the face of Jerzy Dudek's goal when he might have equalised and the substitute, Jari Litmannen, broke away to demonstrate the predator's art as he sneaked in front of the advancing Ed van der Sar before steering home the clincher from a tight angle.
Poor Fulham. Having been accorded the Highbury treatment the previous weekend, they could probably have done with a rest from the attentions of Frenchmen for a while (even though several are themselves French). But Liverpool, benching Michael Owen, started with Anelka, who has packed an inordinate amount of promise and disillusion into a life of just 22 years and 11 months and wasted little time in giving the riverside audience a painful illustration of his capabilities. He was nevertheless a more popular figure here than would have been the case in other quarters of the capital.
Public Enemy Number One was John Arne Riise, whom Fulham courted in vain last summer before he opted to join Liverpool. Showers of coins and cries of "Judas" are not in the Cottage style, let alone burned effigies, so the young Norwegian was able to smile ruefully as he rode a squall of mild booing during the warm-ups. Few Londoners took much interest in the fact that Dudek, fit again after a groin problem, had been restored in goal for Liverpool to the exclusion of that fine English prospect Chris Kirkland.
An interesting but not entirely shocking alteration to the Fulham side saw Andy Melville, the 32-year-old captain, move to the bench to the benefit of Abdes Ouaddou, the Moroccan making his Premiership debut alongside Alain Goma at the back. Since Fulham's promotion, Melville has found some attackers too sharp for him and the threat of Anelka and Emile Heskey was clearly something that concerned Jean Tigana. When Anelka breached Tigana's defence, however, it had less to do with pace than the striker's optimism.
Receiving the ball outside and to the right of a crowded penalty area, he took what appeared a strange decision to shoot and, duly, his attempt rebounded off Rufus Brevett. But it went straight back to Anelka, who reacted quicker than Goma and, switching to his left foot to make optimum use of the space that had opened up for him, drove for the far corner; Van Der Sar, diving low, got a hand to the ball but could not keep it out. It was Anelka's second goal in consecutive Premiership matches, after his equaliser in the Merseyside derby last weekend.
Fulham did not take it lying down and were unlucky still to be behind at the interval. How their fans cursed the remarkable Henchoz's latest entry for tackle of the season, which denied Marlet after the striker had been nudged goalside of his marker in the penalty area by Luis Boa Morte. How they wished some of Boa Morte's pace could have been temporarily converted to composure when, fed by Louis Saha, he wildly sliced too high. And how they admired Saha's wheel and volley from 20 yards, which kissed the crossbar on its way over.
Boa Morte was thwarted by Dudek's outstretched hand before Fulham lost Sean Davis, the midfielder taking a heavy knock and giving way to Lee Clark, who had himself been out of action since mid-December. The Fulham storm had, to a large extent, subsided by the interval and for the second half Tigana ordered his wide midfielders, Boa Morte and Steed Malbranque, to change flanks. Soon Boa Morte was flying down the left, heading for the byline and falling under the challenge of Abel Xavier; rising again, he was shown the yellow card for the offence known as "simulation".
But not a semblance of a goal materialised, not at Dudek's end anyway - Van Der Sar had to thwart a chip from the increasingly influential Danny Murphy - before Marlet made his single, costly, miss.