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May 9, 2009

Reds maintain title challenge

As the real Footballer of the Year has yet to be crowned, those of us in the undecided camp were reminded of Steven Gerrard's claims on the title at Upton Park.

While no one begrudged Ryan Giggs his coronation as the PFA Player of the Year after couple of decades of remarkable service to the game, the premature nature of that ceremony means its credibility has been tarnished to the point where the winner is selected merely by luck rather than genuine judgement.

Those of us fortunate enough to have a vote in the Football Writers' Association Player of the Year poll are required to cast our nominations this weekend and while it would be easy to pick a player from Manchester United's soon to be title-winning side, Gerrard's performances this season are worthy of consideration.

Consistent brilliance is a quality those in the running for a Player of the Year honour require and Gerrard has excelled in that department for a decade, with his ability to drag his side out of holes aplenty in this long season - leading many to believe he is an outstanding candidate.

From the moment he fired his last minute Anfield winner against Middlesbrough on the opening day of the season, Gerrard has been a shining example of class in his No.8 shirt and the club's title challenge may well have had a different conclusion were it not for his handful of niggling injuries.

Indeed, Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez must wonder what might have been if he had Gerrard and star striker Fernando Torres available all season as crucial points were dropped when his key duo were absent.

Benitez has only been able to start with his star men in 12 of Liverpool's 36 matches to date and they have looked to be a potent force in each of those fixtures, though some would say their over-reliance on Gerrard and Torres should be viewed as a flaw.

Rivals Manchester United are not so dependent on the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo as they have the back-up players to fill the void and if Benitez is to end Liverpool's wait for the title, squad strength is an area he needs to look at.

As it stands, Gerrard and Torres have done their best to carry Liverpool to glory and the fact that this victory against West Ham saw them return to the top of the Premier League in the second week of May suggest Benitez's side have made some progress in the last 12 months.

That rivals United have two games in hand makes their accomplishment seem somewhat less impressive, yet the Reds emphasised their title winning potential for future seasons by scoring a fine opening goal in this game after just 76 seconds.

When Liverpool's top two combine, few teams seem to have an answer and just for a change, it was Torres feeing Gerrard on this occasion before the Liverpool talisman rounded keeper Rob Green to open the scoring.

It took West Ham some time to clear their heads after their early blow and while they gather some kind of a foothold in the game, their optimism was quashed as Torres burst into the box and Luis Boa Morte tugged on the Spaniard's shirt. After a week when penalties appeared to be impossible to earn in London, Alan Wiley pointed to the spot.

Gerrard stepped up to score his 15th Premier League goal of the season and his landmark will be recorded as a goal from open play as Hammers keeper Rob Green saved his initial penalty, only to see the Liverpool captain tap in the rebound.

Even though this game still had nearly an hour to run, it felt as if the battle had already been won and the West Ham mood was hardly lifted as striker David Di Michele wasted a glorious chance on the stroke of half-time.

The talk among the journalists gathered for a half-time cup of tea focused on the Player of the Year prize and Liverpool legend John Aldridge, working here for Merseyside radio, was among those promoting Gerrard's cause.

Giggs' name was not mentioned in discussions that included mentions for Manchester United duo Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand, along with Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard, who may well emerge as a dark horse to claim the prize after failing to make the shortlist for the PFA honour.

The second half of this game confirmed again why Gerrard has so much respect within the game and he fancied completing his hat-trick as he tested Green with a powerful shot after 58 minutes, but Liverpool had to wait until the final exchanges before adding their third goal.

As Ryan Babel fired home on the rebound after Green saved his first effort at goal, Liverpool confirmed that they have finally cracked the code of winning tricky away games in the Premier League, much to the delight of their match winner.

"We full deserved our victory and it was another good performance away from home," said Gerrard. "People are saying that the title race is over, but we have to keep going and winning our remaining games will put a little bit of pressure on United. If they are good enough to deal with it, good luck to them."

Benitez was equally unwilling to concede the title has slipped through his grasp with a business like press briefing. "We started so well and once again Gerrard was fantastic," said the Spaniard. "There are only two games for us to play and it is important we finish with six points and see what United do. Maybe they will slip up, you never know."

Benitez's thoughts will soon turn to next season and if Gerrard and Torres enjoy good health for a whole campaign, Liverpool's near miss of 2009 could be converted to the ultimate success a year from now.

As for Gerrard, he can set his sights on finishing as the Premier League's top scorer and maybe, the title of Footballer of the Year will also come his way.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard
The Liverpool captain does not have off-days and he was at his brilliant best once again at Upton Park. His high-energy style is too much for most opponents to deal with.

DI MICHELE MADNESS: You don't often associate the Premier League with comedy moments, but West Ham's David Di Michele was guilty of providing just that as he latched onto Jamie Carragher's mistake and raced clear on goal with just the keeper to beat.

Just as he seemed ready to pull the trigger, the Italian striker inexplicably tumbled in the box and he simply had to appeal for a penalty with no opponents anywhere near him. All he got from referee Wiley was a yellow card for diving and a huge roar of laughter from the media pack watching the incident on the TV replays.

HAMMERS VERDICT: Gianfranco Zola has done a fine job in his first season at West Ham, but his team lack the quality to break down sides of Liverpool's class. They looked blunt in attack.

GERRARD VERDICT: This reporter may be tempted to cast his vote in favour of Steven Gerrard for the Player of the Year prize. In a season when there have been no outstanding candidates, the Liverpool captain has been brilliant throughout.

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