Christian Benteke and Liverpool draw a blank against West Ham in FA Cup
LIVERPOOL, England -- Three points from Liverpool's 0-0 draw with West Ham in the FA Cup fourth round at Anfield.
1. Liverpool face fixture pile up
A replay was the last thing Reds manager Jurgen Klopp will have wanted given his side's packed fixture list. They had the better of Saturday's tie but given the circumstances, a draw was worse than a defeat.
Klopp made 10 changes from the side that started the Capital One Cup semifinal second leg against Stoke City four days earlier and they were far less disjointed here. Seven of those coming into the starting XI -- along with goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who was retained from the semifinal -- had started one or both of the third-round draw at Exeter or the replay at Anfield. This, then, was what could be termed Klopp's FA Cup team. They may soon have to moonlight as Liverpool's Europa League side and, in some cases, put in some shifts in the Premier League, too.
The combination of guile and brawn presented by Slaven Bilic's West Ham team was contained more capably than one would have expected of this Liverpool side. Merely containing, though, was not going to give them the recovery time they need at present as they compete in four competitions.
Bilic's men were not without their chances but they were also quickly on the back foot. The movement of Joao Teixeira and Jordon Ibe pulled the visitors out of shape, enabling Teixeira to swivel 90 degrees and turn on Ibe's pass for Christian Benteke to chase midway through the half. Visiting goalkeeper Darren Randolph was quick to raced off his line and snuff it out. A shot by Cameron Brannagan that tested Randolph was a notable chance, bettered in first-half injury time as a Pedro Obiang shot whistled past Mignolet's right-hand post.
The Belgian had another scare early in the second period when Dimitri Payet's free-kick was nodded on by Nikica Jelavic. The ball fell into Steven Caulker's chest and right arm -- accidentally, referee Martin Atkinson decided -- but with Angelo Ogbonna lurking, the hosts hacked clear. Payet tested Mignolet again with a swerving, hanging free-kick moments later but at the other end, Nathaniel Clyne fired over the crossbar from distance.
Liverpool stepped up a gear with a spell of pressure around the hour mark. First, a pass infield infield was left by Teixeira to set up Joe Allen. The Welshman had scored against Exeter in the third-round replay, won them the penalty shootout against Stoke and equalised against Arsenal, but he skied his effort on Saturday. Randolph was called upon again to deny Benteke on a rare chance inside the area.
The precision needed to pick a way past the Hammers and relieve some stress on the schedule was sadly lacking. Teixeira was on target with a right-foot drive from the left edge of the area only for Randolph to save but on other occasions, Klopp's team fell short. A spate of late chances confirmed this. Clyne's cross behind Allen tempted the latter into a botched bicycle kick. Teixeira tested Randolph once more before Kevin Stewart lost patience with a chance of his own, shooting high into the Kop -- it wouldn't be the last time as the match headed to a goalless conclusion.
2. Benteke goalless once again
When midfielder Brannagan's square ball gave Benteke a look-in at the far post early on, the Belgian forward began another fruitless evening by flicking on to nobody in particular. Minutes later, he was unable to reach another wicked Brannagan delivery. When the increasingly influential Clyne crossed low for Benteke in the second half, the striker got himself in the wrong position and was surrounded. Finally, when Kevin Stewart returned a corner towards goal, the forward failed entirely to connect.
This, in a nutshell, was the story of Benteke's evening. Given another chance to boost his confidence with the second-string side, he could not add to his seven goals in 28 outings when his team needed him most.
A pass by Ibe split Hammers left-back Aaron Cresswell and centre-half Winston Reid, freeing Benteke for his best attempt of the second period only for Randolph to push it away. Allen and Stewart were thwarted in the aftermath but in truth, the chance had gone. The moment a £32.5 million signing is bought for had passed him by.
Brannagan and Teixeira were growing in stature and Sheyi Ojo, on for Ibe, was also lively as he tried to repeat his appearance in the replay against Exeter, when he became Liverpool's youngest-ever FA Cup goalscorer on his debut. The expensive Benteke, their senior partner here, paled by comparison.
Anfield's adoration on the night was largely reserved for Teixeira, whose efforts brought a standing ovation when he was replaced, and Brannagan. That the expensive centre-forward in their midst had again failed to live up to billing almost went unnoticed because it has become the norm.
3. West Ham strong once again
Liverpool had lost 2-0 away to West Ham earlier in January and 3-0 at Anfield in August. This was a more reserved West Ham display than in those previous meetings -- at Upton Park, Bilic said they parked the bus with the handbrake off -- but they did secure their third clean sheet against Liverpool of the campaign.
Even more impressive was that they managed a fairly comfortable defensive display despite being forced into unplanned changes after just half an hour. Joey O'Brien replaced James Tomkins, who had clashed heads with Allen and would require 13 stitches, and Jelavic was sent on for a limping Cheikh Kouyate.
Jelavic was hardly an inferior option against a team known to panic when faced with his muscular sort. He received little comfort from Caulker and Dejan Lovren at the centre of Liverpool's defence, and this was not the bullying meted out by Bilic's side in previous meetings. It was, however, a triumph in its own way.
THE BEST OF ESPN FC
- Bell: Liverpool fans make themselves heard
- Cox: Leicester improving | Why Poch should stay
- Okwonga: Man United's market | City's title hopes
- Laurens: PSG's pre-UCL issues | Hertha's curse
- Highlights (U.S. only): Stuttgart 1-3 BVB
- FC TV: Champions League W2W4 | LVG wrong
- News | Transfer | Toe Poke | Fantasy | FC TV | Podcast | MLS
When it came to the crosses and corners that had exposed the hosts four weeks earlier -- and so often this season -- they found Liverpool much better drilled on Saturday evening. The hosts summoned everyone back to defend dead balls then pushed up to break at lightning speed, with one clearance just escaping Teixeira, farthest forward.
On the occasions when they did repel attacks in the air, Liverpool's speed in racing forward to take a high defensive line was in stark contrast with the sloppiness seen in the 5-4 win at Norwich. Another such transition had Stewart, Teixeira and Benteke racing on to Ibe's pass out of defence, but nothing came of it.
Hints of where the visitors could hurt them were seen early on when Kouyate glided through the Liverpool midfield without working space for an opening and Payet's free-kick to the near post showed his intentions. Lovren -- who had been so shaky in August -- stood firm but the failures up front would consign his team to yet another match in an exhausting season. On home turf, West Ham will fancy their chances of knocking Liverpool out.
Tom is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @writertombell.