West Ham were unable to stop Liverpool in a 2-1 loss at Upton Park, but they can be pleased overall with a battling performance that could have brought a point but for two Steven Gerrard penalties, scored with some coolness in a match filled with controversy.
The Hammers have an awful record against the Anfield side, but you wouldn't have known that in a first half in which the centre-back pairing of Winston Reid and James Tomkins looked completely unfazed by the rampaging reputation of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. Unusually for the home side, they had good possession further up the field than they normally operate and there were signs that -- with the relegation pressure now off -- the Hammers are prepared to be just a bit more expansive going forward.
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Suarez came close early on with a clipped shot that came back off the woodwork, but there was little panic in a defence that had fellow Liverpool striker Sturridge sewn up. While not particularly threatening, Andy Carroll -- keen to do well against his old club -- looked lively in front of a midfield winning a lot of space in wide areas.
As halftime approached, a goalless half looked nailed on until a superb long ball -- as opposed to a pointless hoof -- found Suarez in the penalty area and facing Tomkins. As the Uruguayan attempted to flick the ball around the Hammers defender, the ball struck Tomkins on the hand and referee Anthony Taylor blew for a spot kick. Inevitably, the referee was surrounded by claret and blue shirts, but replays showed a movement of Tomkins' hand towards the ball and it's difficult to see any scenario in which a penalty wouldn't be given.
Steven Gerrard has been the bane of West Ham over the years -- many supporters still wake of a night sobbing after reliving the 2006 Cup final -- and there was little doubt he would score, tucking the ball away as Adrian dived the other way. It seemed then as if Liverpool would go in fortunately ahead, but parity was restored in a comical way in first-half injury time.
Mark Noble's corner saw a host of bodies rise with Carroll, leading with an arm, slapping Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet on the head causing the Belgian to drop the safely gathered ball at the feet of Guy Demel, who was happy to poke over the line for his first West Ham goal. The referee at first awarded the strike. But, with his linesman flagging and with replays showing Carroll's foul on the big screen (a mistake that Hammers TV usually don't get caught out by), the referee -- steadfastly refusing to look at the screen -- decided to chat to his assistant for a minute or so before again awarding the goal.
It was no more than the Hammers deserved, but it was still a poor decision and the TV pundits questioned after what the conversation could have been about. Referee Taylor could later be seen to be saying, "I thought he dropped it." He may well as have been saying, "I think 1-1 was a fairer score line" for all the Hammers fans cared, as they went for a halftime break in good spirits.
Unfortunately, the second period rather reverted to type; West Ham conceding territory and allowing the opposition to come at them and looking for a hit on the break. This is a tactic that has produced mixed results this season but, against better teams, it certainly means the Hammers have to work hard to stay in the game and there were periods when the crisper movement of Liverpool seemed to have the home side chasing all over the park. Carroll did send a thudding header against the bar, but there was little else to worry Mignolet.
As ever though, the defence remained resolute and there was a definite sense that Liverpool had run out of ideas when the struggling Kevin Nolan was replaced by Antonio Nocerino after 68 minutes -- the West Ham captain had been suffering with a back injury all week -- and Liverpool went ahead two minutes later. Again though, it was highly controversial.
John Flanagan followed a through ball into the area and was beaten to it by Adrian, who came smartly off his line, clearly getting a hand to the ball before the Liverpool player fell over him. Referee Taylor thought otherwise and pointed to the spot to the amazement of both sets of players. West Ham argued long and hard of course, but it made no difference, as Gerrard again stepped up to put it away from 12 yards. Liverpool will undoubtedly argue that the decision only equalled the one before half-time, but it did nonetheless leave a sour taste that marred an otherwise entertaining match.
As has happened previously this season, West Ham now found themselves having to re-arrange their pattern of play, as they switched forward to chase the game with one Matt replacing another -- Jarvis for Taylor -- and Carlton Cole on for Mo Diame. This late ploy lacks cohesion, as the defensive formation appears so ingrained the closing minutes just highlight the wasted balls from the wings and the solitary route to the head of Carroll and Cole. Once again, Matt Jarvis appears incapable of playing in any type of probing ball from the wing, while Stewart Downing drifts out of the match. It is a puzzle that Sam Allardyce desperately needs to solve for next season.
Liverpool never looked entirely comfortable, but Suarez hit the bar again and Raheem Sterling saw a save from Adrian late on as the visitors were able to see the game out. Gerrard looked ecstatic as the final whistle blew, probably realising his team hadn't been at their best but had still managed to get a result; usually the sign of a successful team.
West Ham will rue what they will probably see as a missed point but there's enough confidence flowing through the side to overcome this and push on for what is likely to be a best-opportunity 10th place. Liverpool now face Manchester City at Anfield in what promises to be a tasty treat for the neutral, there were indications in this match though that the feared partnership of Suarez and Sturridge can be tamed, and opponents are likely to be looking at the way West Ham operated for all but a few minutes of this match. Anthony Taylor is likely to have other issues to consider though!