Fulham 3 Liverpool 1
RAFA BENITEZ faces a fight to save his Anfield career after Fulham condemned Liverpool to their fifth league defeat of the season.
Defenders Philipp Degen and Jamie Carragher were both sent off at Craven Cottage as the Reds awful form continued.
Goals from Bobby Zamora, Erik Nevland and midfielder Clint Dempsey heaped more misery on Benitez, with Fernando Torres grabing Liverpool's one consolation.
Tactical errors, baffling substitutions and a lack of creativity left the Merseysiders' championship dreams in tatters.
Many of Benitez's decisions left the travelling supporters stunned, none more so than when he hauled off star striker Fernando Torres after an hour with the game finely poised at 1-1.
We had wondered what the significance was of their stirring victory over Manchester United last weekend.
Well, now it looks a one-off. A lone bright spot in a season which could get even darker next Wednesday when Liverpool travel to Lyon for a match which could see them effectively knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages.
After this result they might just be out of the Premier League race, too.
The pressure is building on Benitez. And with the Reds faithful once more booing his substitution of Yossi Benayoun the steam is hissing all around him.
Bizarrely, it was a match in which Liverpool dictated most of the play. They pressed forward with lots of effort, often against a wall of white shirts.
But for vast swathes of the game, they struggled to supply the quality to go with their industry.
Yet it was the home side who took the lead on 24 minutes against the run of play after Sotirios Kyrgiakos gave away possession by directing a header straight to Damien Duff.
The Irishman hit an instant low cross to the far post and Bobby Zamora powered the ball into the back of the net past a helpless Jose Reina.
Fulham looked tidy in possession and were growing in confidence with Zamora combining well with Duff in a move which saw Greek defender Kyrgiakos produce a spectacular diving header to clear the danger.
But after 42 minutes the Reds were level and unsurprisingly it was that man Torres.
There seemed little danger when Andriy Voronin's header came back off a defender but the Spaniard swivelled to hit a fabulous volley from the edge of the box which scorched past Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer for his 10th league goal of the season.
The second half saw the visitors almost gift Fulham a second, as Carragher was nearly beaten by a dodgy bounce with Zamora lurking. However, the Reds captain recovered just in time to adjust his footing and head the ball back to Reina.
Zamora then raced towards the byline and pulled the ball back for Zoltan Gera, but the Hungarian shot straight at Reina.
And the former Tottenham hitman caused havoc again two minutes later, charging into the area and causing Carragher all sorts of problems. The defender gave chase and leant on the striker, who crashed to the deck but the referee waved his penalty claims away.
Rafa Benitez then stunned the travelling support by taking off Torres on the hour mark. The Spanish international did not look injured and sprinted off the pitch to be replaced by Ryan Babel.
Voronin then had a chance and slotted in Benayoun, but the Israel international's effort was blocked by a wall of Fulham defenders.
Zamora was in the thick of the action again on 66 minutes, rolling his marker and smashing a shot high over Reina's goal.
But six minutes later, the home side took the lead again. Paul Konchesky showed a quick turn of pace to accelerate down the line and cross into the box. Reina got a touch on the ball but could only turn it towards Gera, who knocked it back to Nevland to head home from close range.
Benitez then stunned his own fans again by bringing off Benayoun - who had arguably been Liverpool's best player - to replace him with 18-year-old Nathan Ecclestone.
Things went from bad to worse on 77 minutes as Degen saw red on his full league debut after going in with studs raised on Dempsey.
And Liverpool went down to nine men three minutes later when Carragher wrestled Zamora to the ground with the forward clean through on goal. The centreback was shown a straight red card for a professional foul and stormed off down the tunnel.
Benitez took off Dirk Kuyt and replaced him with the more defensive Daniel Ayala in an effort to shore up his decimated backline.
But Clint Dempsey added a third to compound Liverpool's misery four minutes from time as Nevland sliced their defence apart to set up the American for a cool finish at the back post and leave the Reds' title dreams shredded.
: Schwarzer, Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky, Dempsey, Baird, Greening (Etuhu 86), Duff (Nevland 46), Zamora, Kamara (Gera 46).
Subs Not Used: Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Riise, Smalling.
: Zamora 24, Nevland 73, Dempsey 87.
: Reina, Degen, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Kuyt (Ayala 85), Mascherano, Lucas, Benayoun (Eccleston 78), Voronin, Torres (Babel 63).
Subs Not Used: Gulacsi, Spearing, Plessis, Dossena.
Degen (79), Carragher (82).
: Torres 42.
: Lee Mason