Darwin Nunez’s influence was almost immediate. Until his arrival six minutes into the second half, Liverpool were tepid, often beaten by Fulham’s energy. Uruguay’s speed and straightforwardness quickly put the rookie team in a vulnerable position. The £85m Premier League player’s first goal, a clever back heel, came within 15 minutes of his presentation and also played his part in Mohamed Salah’s equalizer.
Today was also the property of another striker. Aleksandar Mitrovic scored twice, having scored 43 goals in the tournament last season and tried to dent his reputation as lacking in the Premier League category. The first was a trademark header, the second a penalty converted after a foul by Virgil van Dijk, to suggest he and Fulham might belong in the first division after all.
Charting the season opener, not much of his performance was disastrous for Liverpool, with Van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold struggling and attacking blunt until Nunez arrived, should be a concern for Jurgen Klopp. Jordan Henderson hit the crossbar in the final seconds, but this was still an escape for last season’s summer.
The problem was coming from the opening seconds when Mitrovic was given space and time to shoot away from Alisson’s left post. He should have been much better but this wouldn’t be his last chance. Fulham played lightly from the whistle, pressing Liverpool in the middle of the field. Meanwhile their opponents seemed agitated and distracted, and their frustrations were mirrored by Allison’s furious banging in the basement of the new Riverside Suite.
It took Liverpool until the 15th minute to launch an attack, and although Luis Diaz shot the ball into the net, he was already judged offside. Salah’s first attempt to score on goal sent him horribly deflected away into a raucous mockery, having lost his directions in the southwest London sun. Fulham left-back Anthony Robinson was better than the Liverpool star in the first half, despite losing to Nunez’s goal, which was placed on the board by an Egyptian cross.
Until the sweeping changes in the second half, Klopp’s pick was echoing Bill Shankly’s old term “like last season”, with Firmino the more central striker and Diaz coming from the left of the Trident. Fulham promotion star Fabio Carvalho joined Nunez on a bench as youth inclusions Stefan Bajcetic, 17, Sepp van den Berg, 20 and Luke Chambers, 18, were evidence of his pre-season injury crisis.
Marco Silva’s style was no different. Only two new signings have been made in Joao Balenha and Andreas Pereira, both of whom are in midfield. Such continuity allowed Fulham to try what Liverpool did to the title opponents last season: to keep them off kick-off. It was a brave strategy, but it had the desired effect. Joel Matip and Van Dijk both underwent heavy workloads by Mitrovic while Andy Robertson and Alexander Arnold’s attacking details were curbed by Bobby Decordova-Reid and Neskens Kebanu, and Pereira’s busy and impressive pass. Meanwhile, Thiago Alcantara was Harrison Reed’s constant companion.
Robertson’s back side needed to block a shot from Reed, then Kebanu’s cross was quickly cleared as Mitrovic lurked. The Serbian’s first goal soon followed, a move initiated by Pereira before Reed and Kibanu sent off Kenny Tite. Alexander-Arnold, at the back post, had no answer to the strength and instinct of the goalscorer, and questions about the England player’s defense will be raised again.
Liverpool responded, Diaz smashed the ball from the corner with a powerful shot, but when Klopp ran into the dressing room in the first half, he had many problems to solve. When Thiago paused with a muscle injury six minutes into the second half, he was replaced by former Fulham player Harvey Elliott, while Klopp also opted to replace Firmino with Nuñez.
Fulham still continues to put pressure on. Mitrovic’s solo run made the audience roar in appreciation, fending off Van Dijk as he did so, then Kebanu slamming into the post to hit Alison. Fabinho was soon gone when James Milner’s experiment was presented.
The changes Klopp made are starting to have an effect. Tim Ream, who had previously featured against Firmino, suffered from a Nunez move, and the striker’s heel strike was preceded by a similar attempt saved by Marek Rodak. A clever touch helped Salah net his second equalizer and sixth consecutive goal in the opening weekend, suggesting the beginnings of a partnership that could soon make Sadio Mane history.
But that came after Mitrovic lured Van Dijk to the Serb’s penalty foul, on a day when two strikers declared themselves in the Premier League.