James Milner’s penalty sent Liverpool back to the top of the Premier League but they were far from impressive in a 2-1 win at Fulham.
Milner had to climb off the bench to rescue his side with an 81st-minute spot-kick as Jurgen Klopp’s men looked like they were going to drop two vital points in the title race.
A below-par Liverpool had gone ahead through Sadio Mane’s first-half strike, but a poor error from Virgil Van Dijk was capitalised on by former winger Ryan Babel to level for Fulham in the 74th minute.
Milner fired home the winner from 12 yards after Mane was adjudged to have been pulled down by goalkeeper Sergio Rico – a decision which looked soft at best by referee Craig Pawson.
But the Reds return to the summit, edging two points clear and putting the pressure on Manchester City, who were not in league action this weekend due to the FA Cup.
The loss was Fulham’s seventh in a row, which is a club record in the Premier League, and it appears only a matter of time until their Championship return is confirmed.
They had given as good as they got in the opening 25 minutes, with Jean Seri curling over from a good position and Babel industrious in his determination to produce against his former club.
But there was always a sense that Liverpool had the keys to unlock the Fulham defence and so it proved in the 26th minute.
The Reds made ground down the left, with Roberto Firmino getting to the byline, where he cut back to Mane to slot home from eight yards.
It was Mane’s seventh goal in the last five games and that run has been well timed considering Mohamed Salah’s now seven-game drought.
That proved the only moment of the first half to remember as Liverpool struggled to reach their peak powers, though they started better immediately after the break, with Van Dijk forcing a good save out of Rico from a header.
But Fulham also improved after the interval and had Liverpool on the rack as Floyd Ayite headed home from an offside position, correctly spotted by the linesman, and Andre Anguissa tested Alisson Becker with a low volley from distance.
With rain pouring at Craven Cottage, Liverpool weathered the metaphorical storm as well and Mane could have killed the game but his glancing header from a corner grazed the crossbar.
Van Dijk has been lavished with praise for his performances this season, so he will have to take the criticism for his part in Fulham’s equaliser on the chin.
He sold Alisson short with a headed backpass and after the goalkeeper was not the bravest in his challenge with Babel, the Dutchman emerged with the ball and rolled into an empty net.
Babel played 146 times for the Anfield club between 2007 and 2011 but proved the only red thing about him now is his hair as he looked like dealing a damaging blow to his former side’s title chances.
But Milner’s fourth league goal of the season won it for Klopp’s men with nine minutes to go as they got out of west London back on top.
Manchester City survived a scare from Swansea City in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, as they came back from a 2-0 deficit to eventually win 3-2.
Goals from Matt Grimes and Bersant Celina before the half-hour mark put Pep Guardiola in a tight spot and forced him to bring on Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero in the second half.
It required a sensational effort from Bernardo Silva, an own-goal forced by an undeserved penalty and a late-winner by Sergio Aguero from an offside position to knock out the valiant Swans.
Despite being eliminated, the hosts set a blueprint for how take down City. We examine some of the takeaways.
As cliche as it sounds, to beat City, you first need to believe that you can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Swansea were matching City’s intensity throughout the game and were not afraid to press and commit men forward in the first half.
The hosts were resonating with the pace of City’s game and relentless in their pursuit of a spot in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
They were the better side in all aspects of the game and could have ended City’s dreams of securing a quadruple of trophies if VAR was in use.
FT | Heartbreaking... Our young #Swans matched one of the best teams in the world today and were so close to a dream #FACup result.— Swansea City AFC (@SwansOfficial) March 16, 2019
All the best to @ManCity in the semi-final. 👏
💻 Match Centre LIVE! 👉 https://t.co/dqt57XKnJl
⚪️ 2 - 3 🔵 | #FACup pic.twitter.com/IHULpjCp59
When teams in the Premier League encounter City, they tend to defend in numbers, while keeping an extremely deep and compact line. With experience and skill, Guardiola’s men have found the knack to unlock such a defence.
Swansea, on the other hand, were dynamic in their defending. They employed an offside trap and shrunk the space in midfield whenever needed by reducing the space between their lines.
Usually, teams facing City tend to absorb the pressure while defending deep, repelling crosses and clearing the passes made into the box. The Swans dealt with problems at the source. The player on the ball was always pressed and City were denied space and time for the final pass.
Despite Swansea scoring two goals in 30 minutes, and conceding three goals in the last 22 minutes, their best player on the night was Kristoffer Nordfeldt – their custodian who scored an own-goal.
The Swedish international was peppered by 22 shots, nine of which were on target. He made six incredible saves, including a double stop from close range to deny Aguero from putting the game to bed before City scored the winner.
You could see Nordfeldt letting out shrill screams in an attempt to ensure that the defensive line was totally focused. It truly was a leader’s performance from the Swede.
Unfortunately for him, destiny had other ideas and he was forced to wear the mask of a villain towards the end of the game. Aguero’s penalty hit the woodwork, bounced back into play, rebounded off his legs and hit the back of the net.
A goalkeeping heroic was hence overshadowed due to sheer misfortune.
Swansea’s attack was truly worthy of all the appreciation it can get. They were extremely progressive with their passing and pushed forward with intent.
There was a sense of urgency – yet patience – in each of their attacks. Swansea were swift in their movements, but never hastened into regrettable decision making.
For the first goal, Mike van der Hoorn lofted a perfectly weighted ball for Connor Roberts to control with great precision. The full-back did well to get past Fabian Delph and draw a foul from the Englishman into the box. Grimes did well to convert from the spot.
The second goal was a product of some exquisite link-up play that Guardiola himself would be proud of. Celina passed the ball to Daniel James, who carried it before handing it to Nathan Dyer. The midfielder returned it to Celina, who capped the brilliant move with a spectacular finish past a hapless Ederson.
Swansea were fluent in attack, playing a lot of forward passes, exploiting the space left by City’s full-backs and were doing everything right. On any other day, it could easily have been a two-goal margin win for the hosts, but it was not meant to be.
The Swans were eliminated, thanks to certain questionable decisions, but even in defeat they taught the top clubs how City need to be dealt with.
If a team from the Championship can outplay City, it’s clear that Guardiola’s forces are not invincible and the blue print laid out on Saturday could come handy for teams in the Premier League and the Champions League.
Having grown up in the shadow of Wembley Stadium, Raheem Sterling was 12 when he enjoyed his first visit to the iconic ground and watched the 2007 FA Cup final.
He had watched the new Wembley being built while riding around on his bike and was among local schoolchildren invited to take part in a special parade to mark the showpiece game.
“My first game at Wembley was Man United-Chelsea, FA Cup final, Didier Drogba scores the winner,” said Sterling, whose Manchester City side visit Swansea in Saturday’s quarter-final tie.
“I was actually one of the boys’ attendants, the ones who wore the old kits for the [previous winning FA Cup] teams.
“It was the first final when the new stadium opened. It was amazing and another thing that inspired me to try to chase my dream of playing there one day. It motivated me, being there and seeing that.”
Sterling, who later cemented his childhood ambition with a tattoo, ironically wore a 1970s Manchester United top as part of that celebration parade 12 years ago.
He has since worked hard to fulfil his dream in the colours of their neighbours, targeting a first FA Cup final as a player having made his Wembley debut for England in 2014 and appeared in two League Cup final wins with City.
The first was a penalty shoot-out win in 2016 against former club Liverpool – his first major trophy – while it was his decisive spot-kick that settled another shoot-out with Chelsea a month ago.
“It was massive, at Wembley, being at home, and having the final say on the game was a dream come true,” Sterling told Sport360 exclusively.
“It was an opportunity I was willing to be there for. Obviously my family, friends, were all there so it was a moment I wanted to capitalise on. It was special, perfect.
“It’s not very often my mum (Nadine) asks for tickets. It was great she was there so I had to make her proud. I want to go back again in the FA Cup.”
City are now one step away from a Wembley return in the semis and the competition forms part of their bid for an unprecedented quadruple of trophies.
They currently lead Liverpool by a point as they aim to retain the Premier League title, while they face Spurs in the Champions League quarter finals.
Sterling has been integral to City’s hunt for honours this season, contributing to 35 goals in 38 games in all competitions, with 19 for himself and 16 assists.
Four goals have come this week, including a hat-trick against Watford – his first since 2015 – and England boss Gareth Southgate has led the calls backing his Player of the Year credentials, hailing a “phenomenal season” for the frontman.
“They are great comments from the manager,” added Sterling. “But at the end of the day all I can do is try to play football with my team, try to play well and try to win trophies.
“Trophies are the ones that decide these things. I’m chasing these things, chasing these trophies.
“It probably is my best season because I have followed up from the last one. That’s what I wanted to do, keep improving, keep trying to do well for the team.
“I just try to keep going and be there for the team and massive moments. It’s not just about scoring goals, but it’s about scoring goals that are vital for the end of the season, that make a difference and count towards us lifting a trophy.
“As a child, being a striker, winger, scoring as many goals as possible is a joy. You dream of getting a hat-trick. When you become a professional, it’s a lot harder and you have to take those moments and try to be there. It was massive to get one against Watford, only my second for City. I just want to keep it going.”
For Sterling, that is what City also need to do to make history in this campaign.
Having been seven points behind Liverpool in the title race at one stage, six-straight wins have put them in front, and they have been victorious in 18 of their last 19 games in all competitions.
He added: “It’s about persistence. Sometimes you are down and disappointed, but you have to keep going, keep winning our games and focus on ourselves.
“That’s what the manager told us and what we have been doing. Now nothing changes either.
“We are taking things game by game, the Premier League, the Champions League and now the FA Cup.
“But we have to believe we can win every game, that has to be the mentality.
“We are leading the league, but at the same time we can’t focus on the opposition when we are going into any of our games. We have to be single minded, can’t worry about what other teams are doing, we are not in control of that.
“We are in control of what we do and when we play, and that’s what we have been doing, focusing on ourselves.
“The teams we are up against in the league are fantastic.
“Liverpool are a fantastic team and if you are not at your best, not up to your standard then they will punish you, they will take advantage.
“We know exactly what they can do, but we can’t focus on them or any of the opposition. What they do is down to them. We are in control of our destiny.”
Sterling has certainly led by example on the field and his growing influence and standing was highlighted when David Silva passed him the captain’s armband in the 7-0 Champions League win over Schalke in midweek.
It was his first time as skipper since joining City in 2015 and he said: “I feel proud. David insisted I take the armband so that was something great to see and hear.
“It was something I was immensely happy to do, to captain the team on a night like that.
“I know it wasn’t at the start of the game, but for him to give me that responsibility was amazing.”