Liverpool 2 Fulham 0:Liverpool looked to be on their way to yet another scoreless draw until record signing Fernando Torres came off the bench to add a touch of class and unlock the Fulham defence.
The Spanish striker broke the deadlock with a clinical strike after 81 minutes, with Steven Gerrard driving home a penalty four minutes later after Peter Crouch was tripped by Carlos Bocanegra.
Manager Rafael Benitez opted to start the same team that beat Besiktas 8-0 during the week. It was the first time in 13 months that the Spaniard had resisted making changes but the team never looked likely to repeat the record scoreline achieved on Tuesday.
If Liverpool had slumped to yet another home draw – it would have been their fifth Premier League home stalemate – their title dreams would have been all but dead.
But Benitez paid £20m for Torres to score goals like this, and in the end Fulham just could not cope with the quality that kept appearing from Liverpool’s bench.
There was an understandable air of expectation from the home crowd after their European heroics, but Sanchez’s men were intent on showing it is never as easy as that.
Former Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy tested Jose Reina after just 14 seconds from 20 yards, and the same player forced Reina into a diving save on 15 minutes.
Sami Hyypia forced Antti Niemi into a full-length save to his left and Steven Gerrard saw a dipping 25 yarder flash over.
But Fulham were sharp and determined, and a lot better organised than Besiktas had been.
Aaron Hughes produced a fine last-ditch tackle to take the ball away from Crouch in the act of shooting, and Liverpool were finding it hard to create clear openings.
Murphy and Steven Davis were allowing little room for Liverpool’s midfield to work in, while Shefki Kuqi and David Healy tirelessly toiled in attack for the visitors.
Crouch came closest in the first period when he hit the crossbar with a looping header from a Fabio Aurelio free-kick seconds from the break.
Two minutes into the second-half and Andriy Voronin forced Niemi into a low save to his right.
But Fulham’s tackles and interceptions were still biting, and friendship meant nothing when Murphy tripped Gerrard from behind in full flow and was booked.
From the free-kick, Aurelio saw his fierce effort clawed away by Niemi, with Voronin firing the rebound over the top. Voronin then combined superbly with Crouch to burst into the box and see Niemi make another fine save.
Fulham took off Healy and sent on Hameur Bouazza to fill in a left-sided midfield role to contest the flow from Yossi Benayoun and Aurelio down that flank.
Liverpool responded by sending on Ryan Babel for Riise on 62 minutes.
His first involvement was to find Benayoun in space, but Niemi made another fine save from the Isreal international’s lob. Benayoun’s next touch was a fine pass into Voronin’s stride, the Ukrainian’s shot going just wide of the far post.
Voronin left the field soon after, a frustrated man after so many opportunities, to be replaced by Torres.
Fulham were now trying to hit on the break, attempting to turn an unlikely point into a miraculous victory.
Liverpool sent on Lucas for Javier Mascherano with ten minutes left, and within a minute the home side were finally ahead.
There was nothing pretty about the build-up, a 60-yard clearance from Reina’s hands.
But Torres took it down brilliantly, side-stepped his way into the box and cleverly clipped his shot inside Niemi’s near post, leaving the ‘keeper flat-footed.
Then on 85 minutes, Liverpool got their second. Bocanegra tripped Crouch in the box and Gerrard crashed home the spot-kick.