Premier League – Liverpool down West Ham to go top
A Steven Gerrard brace helped Liverpool ease past West Ham 3-0 at Upton Park, sending the title chasers to the top of the Premier League – for 24 hours at least.
The Liverpool skipper scored twice in the first half before Ryan Babel sealed all three points late on to keep alive Liverpool’s ever-slimming hopes of wresting the title off Manchester United.
Rafa Benitez’s side took top spot from United on goal difference, but the champions – who now have two games in hand – can reclaim that position with anything but defeat in the Manchester derby against local rivals City on Sunday.
Defeat for West Ham saw them fall behind in the race for a European place after Fulham had beaten Aston Villa earlier in the day to pull ahead of both the Hammers and Tottenham.
Benitez reiterated during the week that all his side can do is keep winning their own games and hope title favourites United slip up somewhere along the way.
Just 77 seconds into the game at Upton Park, Liverpool were already well on their way to fulfilling their obligation, Gerrard springing the offside trap to round Robert Green and finish into an empty net.
It was a real blow Gianfranco Zola’s best laid preparations for the game, and the Hammers’ boss will have been concerned by the ease with which his back line was dissected by Fernando Torres‘s precise through pass.
It took the hosts the best past of a quarter-of-an-hour to recover, but when they finally did, passes began to reach their intended targets and a chance to equalise duly arrived. It fell to Radoslav Kovac, from a corner, but the midfielder could only direct his header over the bar.
He, and the majority of those inside Upton Park, were left to rue that missed chance as Liverpool doubled their advantage on 37 minutes, Gerrard bagging his second of the day.
Luis Boa Morte was the villain of the piece, the Portuguese venting his frustration at not winning an earlier free-kick in the Liverpool half by tugging at Torres‘s shirt as the Spaniard stormed into the box.
Referee Alan Wiley pointed to the spot, prompting a furious reaction from Boa Morte, who was booked for his protestations.
Green guessed the right way and made a decent save as Gerrard hit goalwards from 12 yards but the Liverpool skipper pounced on the rebound to knock home from close range.
West Ham were rattled and some of their players’ behaviour was testament to that – Kovac was shown a yellow card for arguing the toss following a perceived poor refereeing decision before David Di Michele joined his team-mates in the book for a dive that was comical and dishonourable in equal measures.
Di Michele’s caution came after Jamie Carragher made an inexplicable mistake at the back, completely missing his kick to allow the striker a run in on goal. But faced with a one-on-one situation with the keeper, the Italy international panicked and simply allowed the ball to run away from him – in a last ditch attempt to get something from the situation, he went to ground, before shamefully appealing for a spot kick.
It was by far and away the Hammers’ best chance of the game, and a second-half Di Michele strike apart – following good work from the overlapping Herita Ilunga – Jose Reina in the Liverpool goal remained entirely untroubled.
Liverpool threatened to increase their advantage on a number of occasions at 2-0 up, Torres seeing a fortuitous header bounce wide of the post just before the break and former West Ham player Yossi Benayoun firing a volley over the bar just after.
Dirk Kuyt came more into the game in the second half – it was the Dutchman’s cross Benayoun sent into the stands – and a second well-delivered cross from him moments later nearly led to a Torres headed goal.
Gerrard went close to bagging a hat-trick on 58 minutes – Green was equal to his low shot – before the Hammers keeper was again on hand to foil Liverpool, this time Kuyt was the man to see his effort on a lightning-quick break saved.
Substitute Babel eventually made it three, blasting home from close range after Green had repelled his initial header, to give the scoreline an emphatic feel that Liverpool’s domination of the game probably deserved.