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. The Uruguayan, direct, speedy and hungry, soon had the promoted team on the back foot. The £85m man’s first Premier League goal, a smart backheel, came within 15 minutes of his introduction of him and he also played his part in Mohamed Salah’s goal to rescue a draw.
The day belonged to another striker, too. 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 a foxed, lunging Virgil van Dijk, to suggest that the Serbian – and Fulham – may belong in the top division.
This was the first time Fulham had avoided defeat in the opening game of a top-flight season after winning promotion, which is a good sign – as was a performance roared on by an appreciative home crowd.
Drawing the opening match of the season is no disaster for Liverpool but Van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold struggling and an attack blunted until Núñez’s arrival ought to concern Jürgen Klopp. Jordan Henderson hit the bar in the closing seconds but this was most definitely an escape. “The attitude was not right in the beginning,” said Klopp.
Trouble was coming from the opening seconds when Mitrovic was given space to fire past Alisson’s left post. He might have done far better but that would not be his last chance.
Fulham squeezed Liverpool in midfield from that moment on, making their opponents look woozy, distracted, their frustrations reflected by Alisson angrily clanking a clearance into the lower tier of the new Riverside Stand.
“The result is fine, I don’t think we deserved more than that but the performance was massively improbable,” Klopp said.
It took until the 15th minute for Liverpool to mount a proper attack and Salah’s first attempt on goal of the season was a header that went horribly wide after he lost his bearings.
Until making sweeping changes in the second half, Klopp’s selection had echoed the old Bill Shankly idiom of “same as last season”, with Roberto Firmino the most central attacker and Luis Díaz coming in from the left of the trident. But rather than well-oiled, Liverpool looked rusty.
Marco Silva’s approach to selection was not dissimilar, but far more successful. Two new signings in João Palhinha and Andreas Pereira were introduced, both in midfield. The continuity allowed Fulham to attempt to do to Liverpool what they did to Championship opponents last season: blow them away from kick-off. A brave strategy had the desired effect.
“We showed fantastic organization from the start until the end,” said Silva. “Our first half was almost perfect, the way we controlled and worked.”
Joël Matip and Van Dijk were given 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, as well as the passing of the busy, impressive Pereira.
The move for Mitrovic’s first goal was begun by Pereira, before Decordova-Reid and Kebano sent away Kenny Tete to cross from the right. Alexander-Arnold, at the back post, had no answer to Mitrovic’s power and goalscorer’s instinct. Questions against the Englishman’s defending will again be raised though Silva was happy to hand the credit to his striker.
“Mitro is not just goals and if somebody thinks that they can forget it,” Silva said. “The job he did this afternoon for the team, his pressure from him, his helping the midfield and helping the backline, it would have been enough even if he had n’t scored.”
As Klopp jogged to the dressing room at half-time he had multiple problems, compounded when Thiago Alcântara pulled up with a muscle injury soon after the restart. In came the former Fulham player Harvey Elliott, with Klopp also choosing to introduce Núñez in place of Firmino to make a near-instant impact.
Núñez’s flicked goal was preceded by a similar attempt that was well saved by Marek Rodak. A deft touch from the rampaging substitute also helped Salah score the second equaliser, the Egyptian’s sixth successive goal on opening weekends. Salah’s role in Núñez’s goal further suggested a partnership that may soon consign Sadio Mané to history, salvaging further comfort for Liverpool to go along with avoiding defeat.
This was a highly entertaining minor classic that left Klopp concerned and Silva elated, as two strikers announced themselves on the Premier League stage.