Núñez and Salah deny Fulham dream start after Mitrovic torments Liverpool
Darwin Núñez’s impact was almost immediate. Until his arrival six minutes into the second half Liverpool had been listless, frequently beaten to the punch by Fulham’s energy. The Uruguayan’s speed and directness soon had the promoted team on the back foot. The £85m man’s first Premier League goal, a smart back-heel, came within 15 minutes of his introduction, and he also played his part in Mohamed Salah’s equaliser.
The day also belonged to another striker. Aleksandar Mitrovic, coming off 43 Championship goals last season and attempting to buck the reputation of being short of Premier League class, scored twice. The first was a trademark header, the second a penalty converted after a foul by Virgil van Dijk, to suggest that he, and Fulham, may belong in the top division after all.
While drawing the opening match of the season is no disaster for Liverpool much of their performance, in which Van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold struggled and the attack was blunt until Núñez’s arrival, ought to be a concern for Jürgen Klopp. Jordan Henderson hit the bar in the closing seconds, but this was still an escape for last season’s runners-up.
Trouble was coming from the opening seconds when Mitrovic was given space and time to fire past Alisson’s left-hand post. He should have done far better but that would not be his last chance. Fulham played briskly from the whistle, squeezing Liverpool in midfield. Their opponents meanwhile looked woozy, distracted, their frustrations reflected by Alisson angrily clanking a clearance into the lower tier of the new Riverside Stand.
It took until the 15th minute for Liverpool to mount an attack, and though Luis Díaz smashed the ball into the net, he had already been ruled offside. Salah’s first attempt on goal saw him head horribly wide to loud jeers, after he lost his bearings in the south-west London sun. Antonee Robinson, Fulham’s left-back, had the better of Liverpool’s star man in the first half, though he did lose him for Núñez’s goal, which was laid on a plate by the Egyptian’s cross.
Until sweeping changes in the second half, Klopp’s selection had echoed the old Bill Shankly idiom of “same as last season”, with Firmino the most central attacker and Díaz coming in from the left of the trident. Fábio Carvalho, a star of Fulham’s promotion campaign, joined Núñez on a bench where the inclusion of youngsters Stefan Bajcetic, 17, Sepp van den Berg, 20, and Luke Chambers, 18, were evidence of a pre-season injury crisis.
Marco Silva’s was a not dissimilar approach. Just two new signings in João Palhinha and Andreas Pereira were introduced, both in midfield. Such continuity allowed Fulham to attempt to do to Liverpool what they did to Championship opponents last season: blow them away from kick-off. It was a brave strategy but had the desired effect. Joël Matip and Van Dijk were put through a heavy workload by Mitrovic while Andy Robertson’s and Alexander-Arnold’s attacking details were curbed by the runs of Bobby Decordova-Reid and Neeskens Kebano, and the passing of the busy, impressive Pereira. Thiago Alcântara, meanwhile, had Harrison Reed as his constant companion.
It took Robertson’s backside to block a goalbound shot from Reed, and then Kebano’s cross was hurriedly cleared as Mitrovic was lurking. The Serbian’s first goal soon followed, the move begun by Pereira before Reed and Kebano sent away Kenny Tete. Alexander-Arnold, at the back post, had no answer to Mitriovic’s power and goalscorer’s instinct, and questions about the Englishman’s defending will again be raised.
Liverpool responded, Díaz crashing the ball off the angle with a powerful, curling shot, but as Klopp jogged to the dressing room at half-time he had many problems to solve. When Thiago pulled up with a muscle injury six minutes into the second half he was replaced by former Fulham player Harvey Elliott, while Klopp also chose to replace Firmino with Núñez.
Fulham still continued to exert pressure. A Mitrovic solo gallop had the crowd roaring in appreciation, holding off Van Dijk as he did so, and then Kebano hit a post with Alisson beaten. Fabinho soon departed as the experience of James Milner was introduced.
Klopp’s changes began to take their effect. Tim Ream, previously outstanding against Firmino, struggled with Núñez’s movement, and the striker’s backheeled goal was preceded by a similar attempt which was well saved by Marek Rodak. A deft touch helped Salah score the second equaliser and his sixth goal in succession on opening weekends, to suggest the beginnings of a partnership that may soon consign Sadio Mané to history.
But that came after Mitrovic had tempted Van Dijk into the foul from which the Serb powered home his penalty, on a day when two strikers announced themselves to the Premier League.