A hard-fought match was settled by miscalculation. The Liverpool goalkeeper, Pepe Reina, mishandled Danny Murphy's attempt in the 85th minute and Clint Dempsey knocked home the loose ball for the only goal. The errors had started long before that, though, and the referee, Kevin Friend, will endure complaints about players who might have had a second yellow shown to them.

The one man to be sent off was Liverpool's Jay Spearing. He was dismissed for an uncontrolled challenge on the forward Moussa Dembélé after 72 minutes. Although the midfielder made contact with the ball as well there was an uncontrolled tone to the attempt that risks punishment in modern football.

Kenny Dalglish's side had polish and, on occasion, command but could not capitalise. Martin Jol's team, with this win, will feel even more confident of pulling away from relegation fears. Before this match there had been a single Fulham Premier League victory here and, although that 6-0 rout of Queens Park Rangers might have been cherished by supporters, Jol's squad need the sort of consistency on the domestic front shown in the Europa League, where they are on the verge of progressing from the group phase.

There was endeavour here from hosts and visitors alike in a match inclined towards adventure, even if goals hardly flowed despite the early attacks. With six minutes gone Bryan Ruiz had fed Dembélé, with the striker's effort blocked by Reina. Dalglish's team had every intention of responding with their three-man attack but openings were scarce.

It is easy to understand why they had notched just 17 league goals before this fixture. Liverpool have only domestic matters to concern them and, although that could help them concentrate on rebuilding their status, it makes life a little humdrum. Dalglish has still had reason to be encouraged and arrived at Fulham with hopes of a fourth consecutive away victory in the league.

That record looked less surprising when Jordan Henderson cut in from the left to bend a shot that came off the inside of a post before rolling along the line to safety in the 28th minute. There has been sorrow over the long-term injury to Lucas Leiva but little occurred in the opening 45 minutes to highlight the value of the absent defensive midfielder.

For the most part, Liverpool at that stage made it seem less of shock that they had lately taken two wins at Chelsea, in Premier League and Carling Cup. If there was purpose here it owed something to the fact that Fulham do have firepower, as they ultimately showed. A tally of 11 goals from half a dozen home fixtures in the league before this match spoke of a side with the potential to rise.

Dempsey's appetite for adventure ran particularly deep. Some attempts were dealt with and others ran a little wide but the truly exceptional reaction demanded came from Dembélé's drive that was pushed to the left by the leaping Reina after 17 minutes. It was Liverpool, all the same, who had the greater intent to attack, or perhaps just the superior means to do so. The £35m striker Andy Carroll had close support from Craig Bellamy and Luis Suárez, yet there were no overtones of the last encounter by these sides here, when Liverpool took a 5-2 victory in May.

Liverpool have far to go before the standing of old is regained but there is scope to the squad. The task here was to get more menace from the line-up, even if they had come close to an opener before the interval. The purposefulness of Liverpool was immediately apparent following the interval and so, too, was a trace of antagonism, with Bellamy and Dempsey booked after a confrontation. So far as the match was concerned, aggressive intent was embodied most by Liverpool but Fulham had built an enhanced desire to mount sustained attacks.

The mood here was heightened, too, when the home fans took exception to what seemed a dive by Suárez. It still had the tone of a pseudo-controversy that kept onlookers occupied as they waited for some crucial deed in the game. The home crowd almost had to endure it but Philippe Senderos fouled Charlie Adam a fraction outside the area in the 59th minute. There was a yellow card rather than a penalty.

The match seemed, by mere fractions, to be avoiding critical moments. That was not for the want of effort and the boldness discovered by Fulham put the contest even more obviously in the balance. Liverpool should have taken the lead in the 66th minute but Suárez was wrongly deemed offside from José Enrique's pass as he was neatly taking the ball away from Mark Schwarzer to finish.

It had been a very tight call for the assistant referee on an occasion when there was little to separate the sides until Reina's lapse.