Benayoun keeps Liverpool on track
Only time will tell how significant Yossi Benayoun's 92nd minute winner in this thrilling game will prove to be, but it had a certain air of history surrounding it.
Those of us lucky to be working in the media on a day like this tend to get a little carried away when this great game produces the ultimate drama and while few of us packing the press box for this game at Craven Cottage have allegiances to Liverpool, you can't help but feel there is an ominious tide flowing in their direction now.
This memorable match seemed to be destined to finish scoreless as injury time ticked by and Liverpool's attacks became more and more frantic, yet title chases always have significant moments that change the course inexorably and Benayoun's late winner had that sort of flavour to it.
The scenes of celebration among the players, staff and supporters of Liverpool as they finally breached the defences of the otherwise exceptional Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer suggested they felt their return to the top of the table was significant and it was hardly surprising to see skipper Steven Gerrard talk in bullish terms shortly after the final whistle.
"We are going to fight United all the way for this title and they will know it after this result," declared the jubilant captain, after another inspirational performance from a player who must now be the favourite to land the Premier League's Player of the Year award.
"That late goal could turn out to be massive for us and let's see if United are up for this now. It didn't look as if the breakthrough would come for us and I did fear it was going to be one of those days, but Yossi has popped up with the winner and we are right back in the race now."
"United are still favourites as they have the game in hand and it's up to them to beat Aston Villa on Sunday and make sure they don't give ourselves or Chelsea a chance."
Title pressure was not something Gerrard and Liverpool had to worry about until Manchester United threw the race wide open by going down to defeat here at Craven Cottage in the last round of Premier League fixtures, but they seemed ready to handle the additional responsibility with their skipper leading their charge.
Oozing with pace and passion, the Reds looked as if they would not make the same mistakes as United as they poured forward with burning desire from the off and only the man upstairs could explain how the score line remained untouched for an entire 45 minutes as Steve Bennett blew his whistle for half-time.
Liverpool hit the woodwork FOUR times before the break as irresistible forward play from the duo of Gerrard and Fernando Torres threatened to kill off Fulham in double quick time as the sun beat down on the Craven Cottage pitch.
Rafael Benitez has come under plenty of fire from this reporter and many more observers over the course of the last few seasons, but there can be little doubting his side's title credentials when they have their two main men fit and firing on all cylinders.
As Gerrard and Torres showed as they tore Manchester United apart at Old Trafford last month, these two have a magical ability to uncork any defence with their pace and sublime telepathy. Both as brilliant as each other, their build-up play for Torres' chance ten minutes before the break was a classic example of their brilliance.
Three simple passes between the duo sent Torres clear on goal and the only surprise was the brilliant Spaniard failed to convert with the just the keeper to beat. Only the woodwork denied Liverpool their opener and thus was the story of a crazy first half.
Martin Skrtel's 10th minute shot may have beaten inspired Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer, only for Andreas Dossena to divert it onto the crossbar and the Liverpool defender hit the same piece of woodwork again after Gerrard's fizzing cross.
Their misfortune was hard to believe as Xabi Alonso also struck the woodwork before the break as he showed sublime technique to crash a shot off the crossbar at the half, leaving the press room full of confused a bemused faces at the break.
At this point in the proceedings, the statistics confirmed Liverpool led the attempts at goal by a ten to zero, but the score line did not confirm their domination as the half-time whistle blew.
The flow of traffic towards the Fulham goal continued after the break as Schwarzer denied the ever-dangerous Torres, but Liverpool's concerns began to grow as the clock ticked past the hour mark and they had failed to break their duck.
Benitez's response was to throw Ryan Babel and Benayoun into the action, yet panic set in for Liverpool long before the dramatic finale. With the Liverpool boss looking increasingly dishevelled on the touchline, Benayoun wasted the next glorious chance as he failed to connect with Gerrard's cross and with each miss, it felt as if the title was slipping away from the Reds.
Desperate sides rarely play with the composure, but this was an occasion when Liverpool bucked that theory as Gerrard somehow managed to get the ball through to Benayoun and at that moment the title race was at his mercy.
With the imposing Schwarzer standing before him, the Israeli had so much to do and it needed a shot of rare quality to beat the big Aussie and burst into the far corner of the net. Even Benitez allowed himself to get carried away in the celebrations that followed and if Liverpool are to be crowned champions of England once again, this was the moment that changed the course of the season.
"It was a vital win and one we deserved," declared a calm Liverpool boss Benitez. "We hit the post four times, had lots more opportunities and played well, but you sometimes need some luck and we may have got this in the end. We still have a chance in the title race and that is all we could hope for today."
Some observers may hail Liverpool as Premier League favourites if United fail to beat Aston Villa on Sunday. Isn't this game a wonderful mix of the unexpected.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Mark Schwarzer
The Fulham cross bar could have been hailed as the man of the match as it saw most of the action in the first half, but this big Aussie also deserved credit for pulling off some fine saves.
FOOD WATCH: A fine mid-afternoon lunch in a Fulham pub solved this problem. On such a glorious London afternoon, it seemed rude to show up at the stadium too early.
QUAINT BUT ANNOYING: Fulham's Craven Cottage stadium revives memories of bygone days, but it is a little annoying to spend the match perched behind a pillar obscuring one of the goals. The Insider's army of 'fans' will doubtless be chuckling at this latest moan.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Make no mistake, Benitez's men are title challengers in every sense of the word. Only luck denied them a comfortable win at a ground where Manchester United lost a couple of weeks ago and, like true champions, they found a way to win in the end. Now it falls to United to show they have what it takes to withstand this Merseyside revival.