Bullish Aleksandar Mitrovic, Darwin Nunez the star and what we learned in Fulham vs Liverpool draw

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In form: Mitrovic  (Action Images via Reuters)
In form: Mitrovic (Action Images via Reuters)

These early season reports are usually framed in terms of ‘what we learnt’ and the suspicion arriving at Craven Cottage this August lunchtime was that the answer would be not much.

Liverpool, a point and a Vinicius Jr. away from an unprecedented quadruple last term, were already up and running having beaten champions Manchester City in convincing fashion in the Community Shield last weekend.

Fulham, meanwhile, were already being heavily tipped for a third relegation in five seasons, the early sinking feeling hardly subsiding when Marco Silva - without many alternatives - named a starting XI that included nine of the squad that failed to beat the drop two years ago.

Instead, however, the yet-to-be-written form book was torn up as Fulham produced a magnificent performance, full of the kind of tenacity and spirit that will be needed to keep them in the division in the absence of much proven Premier League quality, to come almightily close to a famous opening weekend upset.

Eventually, the home side were forced to settle for a 2-2 draw after first Darwin Nunez and then Mo Salah cancelled out Aleksandar Mitrovic’s brace.

So, here’s what we did learn…

The striker kicked off where he left off last season. (Action Images via Reuters)
The striker kicked off where he left off last season. (Action Images via Reuters)

Mitrovic 2.0

When Mitrovic unexpectedly found himself in space inside the Liverpool box with the ball at his feet in the opening minute, you expected the net to bulge. It was only a half-chance, really, but you don’t score 43 goals in 44 games in any division without gobbling up those, too.

So, when the Serbian hesitated and then toe-poked a tame effort wide, the fear that we might be watching the player that struggled badly in the top-flight two seasons ago, rather than the one that blew the Championship apart last season, briefly crept in.

From then on, however, the centre-forward was phenomenal. He bullied Trent Alexander-Arnold at the back post to open the scoring with a trademark header, then squared Virgil van Dijk up to win the spot-kick he converted.

It was a passage of play in-between, however, that offered the clearest evidence that this is a better, more mobile, more bullish Mitrovic than on his last visit to the Premier League as he brushed off Jordan Henderson with ease in midfield, then Cruyff turned away from Van Dijk and spread the ball wide to a teammate.

The 27-year-old scored just three Premier League goals in 2020/21 and is within touching distance of that mark already.

Summer signings shine, but more needed

Silva’s chief protestations at the lack of transfer activity this summer have concerned his defence and glancing at the Portuguese’s lineup, it was not difficult to see why.

Kenny Tete, Antonee Robinson and Tosin Adarabioyo had all been regulars in the backline that went down two years ago, when Joachim Andersen - brilliant for Crystal Palace since - was the fourth member and Alphonse Areola - likewise in the Europa League for West Ham last term - stood between the sticks.

An upgrade is still required on 34-year-old captain Tim Ream, who in fairness was excellent here, and ideally a bigger one than a 30-year-old Shane Duffy, while Bernd Leno will expect to usurp Marek Rodak fairly swiftly.

But if Silva is forced to otherwise rely on the aforementioned trio then this was an encouraging start.

Robinson, Adarabioyo and Tete were each hugely inexperienced ahead of their maiden Premier League campaigns and though still young in defensive terms - they are 24, 24 and 26, respectively - should be much better prepared for this second crack at the top flight. Robinson, in particular, was outstanding here, going toe-to-toe with arguably the division’s most dangerous attacker in Salah throughout.

 (PA)
(PA)

Darwin Nunez is a star

The margin of defeat in last season’s title race means it will be difficult for Jurgen Klopp’s men to view this result as anything other than two huge points dropped but it could easily have been worse had it not been for the impact of Nunez off the bench.

The £85million summer signing replaced the ineffectual Roberto Firmino only minutes after half-time as and brought a focus to what had been a surprisingly flat Liverpool display.

The 23-year-old ought to have shot when trying to square for Luis Diaz, but twice got across his man to meet Salah crosses, denied by Rodak once but flicking brilliantly past the Fulham keeper with the second.

He then had an effort cleared off the line by Ream before setting up Salah’s equaliser. There was a degree of good fortune in that assist, but already there seems an encouraging spark between the pair and when Crystal Palace head to Anfield on Monday week, Nunez will surely be involved from the start.

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