Liverpool back in pole position
Two penalties from Gerrard earns the points for Liverpool away to West Ham
West Ham United’s goalkeeper Adrian concedes a penalty with this challenge on Liverpool’s Jon Flanagan. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
West Ham 1 Liverpool 2
Not for the first time this season, Liverpool could be grateful to Steven Gerrard for his nerveless precision from the penalty spot. The captain scored his 10th and 11th spot-kicks in all competitions as his club maintained their Premier League title challenge and made light of a remarkable refereeing blunder into the bargain.
One of the principal talking points of a dramatic afternoon in the East End came at the end of the first-half when Andy Carroll, West Ham’s former Liverpool striker, who looked to be on a mission to prove and score points against his old team, clattered visiting goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, following a Mark Noble corner.
Guy Demel duly turned home his first goal in West Ham colours but linesman Stuart Burt was flagging. The goal looked set to be disallowed. Yet, after a lengthy conversation with Burt, referee Anthony Taylor overruled him. West Ham were level. Taylor happens to hail from Wythenshawe in Manchester. Cue Liverpudlian conspiracies.
Gerrard, though, cut through them, when he blasted in the second penalty – his 10th successful conversion of the league campaign – and it was West Ham who were left to nurse the feelings of injustice even if, on balance, Liverpool were value for the victory. Despite a disciplined performance, Sam Allardyce’s side were second best in the creative stakes.
The hosts disputed the second penalty award, arguing that goalkeeper Adrian had touched the ball before he cleaned out the Liverpool full-back Jon Flanagan. It was a close call and one that would not have gone down well at Chelsea or Manchester City but Taylor was right to point to the spot. Adrian’s faint contact with the ball did not mask the foul.
There were boos from the Upton Park crowd at full-time but delight among the travelling supporters. This was not a vintage performance from Liverpool – they only cut loose in an attacking sense at 2-1 – but it was still a ninth straight league victory. All eyes will now turn to next Sunday’s visit to City. Liverpool have control of their destiny. Beat City, and the title could be theirs.
Liverpool had arrived as the hot favourites, although that rather overlooked West Ham’s own purple patch of results and just what awkward opponents they can be. Brendan Rodgers’ team have struggled at times against physical and direct opposition and it was clear at the outset that West Ham would look to hit Carroll and play off him whenever they could. The big centre-forward’s duel with the Liverpool centre-half Martin Skrtel was box-office stuff.
This was a first return to Upton Park for West Ham since they were booed at the end of the 2-1 win over 10-man Hull City and it is fair to say that Allardyce’s substance-over-style approach has it critics in these parts. Yet it somehow feels more acceptable against the bigger clubs; this team likes to bite as the underdog and the crowd responded to their efforts.
West Ham’s power, and not only from Carroll, was a test for the visitors. Mohamed Diamé might be cast to the flank these days but he was a handful, particularly when driving inside while Winston Reid looked to stay tough-tight to Luis Suárez. Mark Noble added the touches of finesse in midfield.
Liverpool were content to punch on the counter, to harness the pace and quicksilver quality in their ranks and they flickered, with Suárez, as ever, to the fore. The opening goal came on the break, ironically, after a long ball but Suárez was central to it.
James Tomkins had played him well up to that point, even if Suárez had still managed to wriggle clear of the West Ham defence on 20 minutes to bend a wonderful shot against the crossbar. The home team did not escape when the Uruguay striker darted onto the long ball and touched it inside Tomkins. The central defender left his hand out, the ball struck it and it was an obvious penalty; Tomkins’ hand was not in a natural position.
Up stepped Gerrard and up flashed the Sky graphic on both of the stadium’s big screens about where the Liverpool captain had placed his most recent penalties, which was weird, even if Adrián surely had to be pre-armed with sort kind of information. Gerrard still sent him the wrong way, planting the kick low into the bottom right-hand corner. A red flare lit the scene in the visiting enclosure.
But West Ham fought back. Literally. Carroll was missing only a pair of boxing gloves as he embraced the physical fight all afternoon and it felt inconceivable that the referee could not see how he led with his arm on Noble’s corner to clump Mignolet on the head. There was that split-second when everybody seemed to stop but Demel did not and he flicked the ball into the net. The equaliser would stand.
West Ham were left to lament Carroll’s effort just after the hour, when he out-muscled Glen Johnson to boof Diamé’s centre against the crossbar and the afternoon turned again on Liverpool’s second penalty. Once again, West Ham could not complain too loudly although, of course, they did, Adrián arguing that he got something on the ball. Gerrard hammered his kick into the other corner this time.
Liverpool might have embellished the final scoreline. Suárez hit the crossbar again with an impudent chip with the outside of his boot on 83 minutes. He was also denied one-on-one by Adrian while the goalkeeper saved smartly from Raheem Sterling. Liverpool march on