Liverpool left battered and bruised by West Ham but still come out on top
Brendan Rodgers’s side win ugly at Upton Park to keep up title challenge
Steven Gerrard celebrates with tea-mate Raheem Sterling after scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot against West Ham United. Photograph:Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Sometimes the ugly wins are the most beautiful ones. Brendan Rodgers’ philosophy is always to play the right way, with style and panache, and his thrilling Liverpool side have been so wonderful to watch that it is difficult to argue with the assertion that it would be a victory for football if they end their 24-year wait for the title this season.
Yet to quote Sam Allardyce, this is a results business and West Ham’s robustness ensured that Liverpool had to display qualities that are not always associated with them to ensure that they left east London battered, bruised but still dreaming of Steven Gerrard lifting the Premier League trophy for the first time next month. Titles are won and lost in these kind of games and it took character to overcome West Ham. In the end, two penalties from Gerrard separated the sides and it could be winner-takes-all when Manchester City visit Anfield next Sunday.
For long periods, it looked like this would be the afternoon Liverpool would come unstuck, when they would finally be gripped by doubt. West Ham’s physicality meant they were never allowed to be at their sleek best and there were times in the second half, as Liverpool huffed and puffed in their search for a decisive second goal, when thoughts turned to the way Manchester United twice lost the league title at Upton Park all those years ago.
Andy Carroll’s brute strength in the air against his former club kept Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho occupied at the heart of Liverpool’s defence, Stewart Downing was another familiar face on the left flank and a dry pitch prevented Rodgers’ men from achieving their usual fluidity in possession. Passes went astray, crosses were over-hit and through balls rarely came off.
West Ham’s defence is one of the meanest in the league and other than an impudent effort from Luis Suarez against the bar after 20 minutes, Liverpool struggled to find space. Indeed it was telling that they were at their most threatening on the break and recognising that they were in a brawl, Rodgers chose to replace Phillippe Coutinho with Lucas Leiva’s snarl at half-time.
It took a raking pass from Gerrard to Suarez to unlock West Ham just before the interval and when James Tomkins handled, Liverpool’s captain converted the penalty. Red smoke billowed from the away end but a minute later steam was coming out of Rodgers’ ears after West Ham equalised from a corner in outrageous circumstances. It was a goal that might have stood in the Nat Lofthouse era but this is the 21st century and only the referee knows why he thought Carroll catching Simon Mignolet on the head, giving Guy Demel the chance to prod the loose ball into the net, was legal. The goal stood even though Anthony Taylor’s assistant, Simon Burt, flagged for a foul.
Liverpool were incandescent and the mood grew tense as they toiled away trying to regain the lead. The signs were worrying when Suarez held his head in his hands after ballooning a cross over the bar midway through the second half.
Yet Liverpool are playing with the authority of a team convinced of their destiny and although that belief was shaken, they eventually found a way through when Adrian was deemed to have fouled Jon Flanagan. Once again, Gerrard was emphatic from 12 yards. Finally Liverpool could appreciate the beauty in among the ugliness. All they need now is five more wins and the title is theirs.