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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
David Hytner at Craven Cottage

Liverpool hold off late Fulham rally to book Wembley date with Chelsea

A deflected shot from Liverpool's Luis Diaz squirms past Fulham goalkeeper Bernd Leno to give Liverpool the lead.
Bernd Leno fails to stop Luis Díaz’s deflected shot, which gives Liverpool a two-goal aggregate lead. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

At last, the Fulham support had a cup tie. Liverpool had scored early through Luis Díaz and, for so long, it felt as though Fulham’s big night was about to fall flat. The concession was a bad one, not a moment that the goalkeeper, Bernd Leno, will enjoy watching back. Or the full-back, Timothy Castagne.

Fulham needed two goals to take this semi-final to extra-time, having lost the first leg 2-1, and it was Liverpool who boasted the assurance. There were long spells when Jürgen Klopp’s team played as though they felt it was their destiny to close in on a record-extending 10th League Cup. Their pressing was suffocating. It also said much that when the Fulham playmaker Andreas Pereira misplaced a pass on 66 minutes, there were boos from the crowd.

The Fulham fans who had turned up for a rare semi-final – only the eighth in their club’s 145-year history – just wanted to see something, anything, to give them hope. But now it came. Suddenly, gloriously. There were 76 minutes on the clock when the substitute Harry Wilson – the one-time Liverpool academy player – tricked past Conor Bradley to cross from the left. After a slight deflection, there was Issa Diop, of all players, to guide past Caoimhín Kelleher with his thigh. They couldn’t, could they?

Craven Cottage was rocking; Liverpool were, too. And, moments later, Fulham went close to the goal they had dreamed about. Again it was Wilson striding forward, the Liverpool defenders backing off and, when he shot, Kelleher’s save was certainly awkward, the ball squirming away from him and going just past the post.

“Stand up if you still believe,” roared the white and black hordes. They had sung the same song during their previous semi-final second leg – against Hamburg here in the 2009-10 Europa League. That night, riding a wave of emotion, they had pulled off an impossibly memorable come-from-behind victory.

Issa Diop of Fulham deflects the ball into the Liverpool goal to make it 1-1.
Issa Diop deflects the ball in to bring Fulham level on the night. Photograph: Michael Zemanek/Shutterstock

This time, it was too much to ask. There will be no Wembley final for them, no shot at a first major trophy. Liverpool had been spooked but they soon stabilised and nobody could say they did not deserve to progress.

Klopp was without a host of players, including Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold. He made his now customary rotations – Kelleher for Alisson and Jarell Quansah for Ibrahima Konaté in central defence being the most eye-catching. His team still produced a performance that he liked a lot. “We knew what this game meant to Fulham,” Klopp said. “We had to show that we wanted it as much as them. We were ready.”

What stood out was Liverpool’s calmness. Apart from the late craziness, they oozed control; always giving the impression they believed they would get the job done. Marco Silva, the Fulham manager, said: “For them it, was just another game. Performance-wise, it wasn’t our best.”

Liverpool’s Luis Diaz celebrates after opening the scoring during the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg match between Fulham and Liverpool.
Luis Díaz jumps for joy after his deflected effort gives the visitors the lead in the Carabao Cup semi. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The Fulham fans had waved their black and white flags when the players emerged for kick-off, the pyrotechnics also going off. “Dare to Dream” read a banner in the Hammersmith End. All of which made Díaz’s early goal such a passion killer.

Fulham had flickered in the early exchanges, especially when João Palhinha arrived on the penalty spot to meet a Pereira corner. Palhinha was unmarked and had time to read the delivery. He lifted the volley high and, as Silva put his hands to his head, the thought occurred that Fulham might regret spurning such a chance. Quansah played a big part in the Liverpool goal, shaping a long crossfield diagonal, right to left; the sort of pass that Klopp’s team were always looking for. Díaz went up with Castagne and he won the duel too easily, collecting on his chest and surging inside. When Tosin Adarabioyo and Palhinha converged, Díaz shot and what happened next was difficult to unpick. Suffice to say the ball deflected to flummox Leno at his near post. The goalkeeper beat the ground in frustration.

Liverpool might have added to their lead before half-time, as Fulham – a Raúl Jiménez shot aside, which Kelleher turned behind – offered little. Where was the hustle from them? Harvey Elliott, the former Fulham midfielder, looked as though he enjoyed the boos that came his way; he tried to make things happen. Darwin Núñez threatened.

Liverpool were back into their rhythms after the interval, Díaz surging through only to check back and pass when he might have shot. Fulham almost fashioned a lifeline when Adarabioyo reached a Willian cross ahead of Kelleher to head towards the left-hand side of the six-yard box. The angle was tight for Pereira and he crashed his shot against the outside of the post.

It said plenty that Liverpool went straight to the other end and nearly scored themselves. Núñez played the final pass and Elliott, with only Leno beat, shot too close to the goalkeeper’s legs. Leno would save brilliantly from a Núñez curler while the Liverpool centre-forward was inches from finding the far top corner after a smart spin. The late twist had not really been advertised. Liverpool march on.

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