Fulham 1 Liverpool 0: Spearing has off night as midfielder walks for reckless challenge
Few grounds can be decorated for the season of goodwill quite as cosily as Craven Cottage, bedecked with fairy lights and holly and a giant Christmas tree outside the dressing rooms.
But if ever a game defied its quaint location then here it was: a thrilling and pulsating skirmish laced with bitter feeling and controversy.
Clint Dempsey scored the only goal, tucking in a rebound after Pepe Reina spilled a shot he ought to have held from Danny Murphy, five minutes from time.
Jumping for joy: Clint Dempsey celebrates after scoring Fulham”s winner against Liverpool
Fulham: Schwarzer, Kelly, Hangeland, Senderos, Riise, Dempsey, Murphy (Gecov 90), Etuhu, Ruiz, Dembele, Zamora (Johnson 71).
Subs Not Used: Etheridge, Kasami, Hughes, Frei, Briggs.
Booked: Dembele, Dempsey, Senderos.
Goals: Dempsey 85.
Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Jose Enrique, Henderson, Spearing, Adam, Bellamy (Downing 77), Suarez, Carroll (Kuyt 77).
Subs Not Used: Doni, Maxi, Coates, Carragher, Kelly.
Sent Off: Spearing (72).
Ref: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).
Liverpool were already a man down after Kevin Friend decided Jay Spearing’s aggressive midfield challenge on Moussa Dembele was reckless enough to be worthy of a red card in the 72nd minute.
Spearing won the ball cleanly but he followed through hard into Dembele’s ankle and left the Belgian writhing on the ground.
Martin Jol thought it was a red card but Liverpool certainly did not, with seven players surrounding referee Friend to dispute the decision, which could easily lead to an FA charge for intimidation.
There was no shortage of flashpoints or talking points. Dempsey clashed angrily with Craig Bellamy in the second half, with Fulham’s match-winner fortunate to stay on the pitch after going head to head and screaming in Bellamy’s face.
It seemed an over-reaction to a clumsy challenge from the Liverpool striker, who stepped on Dempsey’s foot as he chased him from behind. Bellamy pleaded his innocence, wiping his face to suggest he might have been sprayed with spit. Both players were booked.
Philippe Senderos, too, could have been dismissed. He was booked for a cynical foul on Charlie Adam on the edge of the penalty area. It was very close. It could easily have been interpreted as a penalty. Bellamy’s free-kick took a deflection and flashed wide.
Soon after, Senderos dragged Andy Carroll down in an off-the-ball clash. It was caught on the television cameras but it escaped the officials.
Winner: Dempsey slots home after Pepe Reina spilled Danny Murphy”s effort
From start to finish there was also a running battle between the home crowd and Luis Suarez, which ended with the Uruguayan flicking a finger towards the stands as he left the pitch after the final whistle to chants of ‘Cheat, cheat, cheat’.
He had worked hard up front alongside the largely anonymous Carroll and his frustration built up and boiled over as Liverpool dominated the first half but failed to beat the excellent Mark Schwarzer.
The Aussie keeper made a string of brilliant saves from Carroll, Adam and Jose Enrique but kept his best for the closing minutes, when he tipped a long-range effort from his former Middlesbrough team-mate Stewart Downing on to the post.
Out of order: Liverpool”s Luis Suarez made a gesture to Fulham fans after they had taunted the striker
Jordan Henderson also rattled the woodwork in the first half. Collecting the ball on the left, the midfielder quickened his pace and skipped between Dempsey and Murphy before curling the ball towards the far corner.
This time, Schwarzer was well beaten and relieved to see it thud into the post and bounce away to safety. Henderson was involved again, moments later, linking up well to produce another glimpse of goal for Carroll but this time Hangeland’s challenge was enough to deny the 35million England striker.
Harsh Jay Spearing was sent off for this foul on Fulham”s Mousa Dembele
Suarez took issue with what he thought was too much physical attention from Fulham’s central defenders, Hangeland and Senderos, in the first half.
He raised the issue with referee Friend, who seemed to respond by encouraging the striker to try harder to stay on his feet but the next time Suarez went to ground, Friend blew for a free-kick. Dembele, who made the challenge, kicked the ball away in a temper.
Suarez was jeered off at half-time and tension resurfaced when he burrowed into the Fulham penalty area once again, fell under an innocuous challenge from Hangeland and grabbed the ball.
Incensed: Kenny Dalglish felt Spearing was harshly treated by Kevin Friend
On the advice of his linesman, the referee gave a free-kick to Fulham.
Ultimately, Spearing’s red card changed the game, giving Fulham a little extra hope and a little extra space in midfield at a time when they were bracing themselves for a late onslaught from the visitors.
Liverpool had dominated but Jol’s team had always been dangerous on the break and their slick approach helped contribute to a wonderful spectacle.
Controversy: Spearing is given his marching orders (above) as Liverpool”s players protest (below)
The initial tackle appeared to have been made just outside the line, but contact continued well inside the area.
Friend was well positioned and refused to award a penalty with Bellamy hitting the free-kick into the wall.
Carroll, Liverpool”s 35million signing from Newcastle, saw a shot head towards the corner flag and was taunted with chants of “what a waste of money”.
Suarez had his goal disallowed and Liverpool”s frustration boiled over in the 72nd minute when Spearing was sent off for his challenge on Dembele.
Crunch: Dempsey and Craig Bellamy came together as they challenged for the ball
Reina made a good save after only six minutes to thwart Dembele, then another from Dempsey, who also hit the bar with a vicious strike before he scored the winner.
The victory, Fulham’s first at home in the Premier League since they thrashed Queens Park Rangers 6-0 two months ago, relieved the pressure on Jol and eased the team a couple of places away from the relegation zone.
An ankle injury to Murphy in stoppage time, however, marred the celebrations but Fulham’s disappointment will be as nothing compared to Liverpool’s.
Poor show: Andy Carroll (centre) had an off night in front of goal as the striker”s struggles continued
Kenny Dalglish brought the Reds to Craven Cottage after six away wins in succession. They won twice in the neighbourhood against Chelsea and three points last night would have launched them back into the top six, primed for a festive assault on the top spots.
It did not quite go to plan. Spearing’s red card gives the manager a midfield problem after the long-term knee injury suffered by Lucas Leiva, Carroll continues to look like a very expensive misfit and Suarez could be back in bother.