Friday 6 December 2019

'Fearless' Reds keep title chase on track

West Ham 1 Liverpool 2

Liverpool's Jon Flanagan is brought down by West Ham goalkeeper Adrian leading to the visitors' second penalty
Liverpool's Jon Flanagan is brought down by West Ham goalkeeper Adrian leading to the visitors' second penalty
Steven Gerrard scores Liverpool's second and matchwinning goal from the penalty spot
West Ham's Andy Carroll goes down after being fouled by Liverpool's Mamadou Sakho
West Ham's Matthew Taylor is tackled by Liverpool's Raheem Sterling
West Ham goalkeeper Adrian watches on as a shot bounce off his crossbar

Sam Wallace

The Brendan Rodgers banner was unfurled, the away support was in full voice and Daniel Sturridge was issuing instructions as to who should be the recipient of the shirt he had balled up and lobbed into the travelling supporters.

Just another monumental Liverpool victory in their improbable pursuit of the club's first title in 24 years.

This one was different, a hard-fought scrap, complete with two bad refereeing decisions and a lot of nerves before Liverpool claimed a ninth straight win that takes them back to the top of the Premier League.

Steven Gerrard scored both from the penalty spot and in the meantime, Liverpool were obliged to withstand the classic Sam Allardyce treatment, a competitive physical team revved up on indignation and desperate for an upset.

There will have been countless trips to the Boleyn Ground over the years that will have slipped from the memory of Liverpool fans as season after season has petered out into mediocrity.

But this game could become one of those that is remembered forever, if it all ends with Gerrard lifting the one trophy to have eluded him thus far come May 11. Five games to play and if Liverpool win them all they claim the 19th title of the club's history. None bigger than Sunday, when Manchester City come to Anfield for what is, for now at least, the decisive game in the title race.

Only City other than Liverpool can control the destiny of the title and for all their remarkable achievements thus far, it is the game against City that will test the true measure of Rodgers' players.

"Fearless" was the Liverpool manager's assessment of how his men will approach this enormous game. His narrative all along has been that there is no pressure on his team, that this should be City's title and that his young side are the surprise package in the title race.

Even the cynical would have to concede that Rodgers has aced it this season, from the tactical switches midway through games – another yesterday – to the measured, sensible responses post-match.

Asked about the erratic decisions of the referee Anthony Taylor, who should have disallowed Guy Demel's West Ham goal for a foul by Andy Carroll in the build-up, the Liverpool manager thought about it for a split second and pointed out that his priority was not getting fined by the FA.

At every opportunity he has sought to take the pressure off his players even, as it stands, with them just five wins from the title.

In many respects, he is right. No one thought Liverpool would be in this position come April. Their nine straight wins are a preposterous achievement, they have managed to stay relatively injury free – although Daniel Agger was missing with an ankle injury – and there is no reason why they can not beat City and Chelsea at Anfield.

They beat West Ham in spite of a below-par performance from Daniel Sturridge, later substituted. Luis Suarez has had better games too but he still managed to clip the frame of the goal twice. Pressed all over the pitch in the first half, Rodgers beefed up his midfield at half-time by replacing Philippe Coutinho with Lucas Leiva, and managed to push back against a West Ham side led by the aggression of Liverpool's erstwhile £35m man Carroll.

Rodgers described the player he sold as "the best in Europe" at what he did, although he did not go into too much detail as to what it was Carroll did.

Winning headers and roughing up defences is what Carroll does best, although his part in West Ham's equaliser was pretty outrageous. At a corner a hand from Carroll struck Simon Mignolet in the face, he dropped the ball and Demel poked it into the goal.

The Liverpool players were outraged, especially as Taylor's assistant Stuart Burt flagged in the aftermath and spoke at length to the referee before he decided for a second time to give the goal.

Two minutes earlier, Gerrard had beaten the West Ham goalkeeper Adrian for the first time from the penalty spot after Suarez had hit a cross from the left side of the area and James Tomkins was judged to have handled.

Allardyce had faced down the fans who booed his players during the win over Hull in his matchday programme notes, pointing out that a record of 22 points in 12 games was "more points than that of Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United, Southampton and Newcastle" in a comparable period.

"I want nothing more than for my teams to play attractive, effective football," he wrote. West Ham were impressive in the first half, with Stewart Downing, another former Liverpool man, a threat on the left side.

Carroll hit the bar with a marvellously committed header just after the hour. Then on 70 minutes came the game's decisive moment when Taylor, perhaps with his decision for the West Ham goal playing on his mind, awarded Liverpool a second penalty.

The replays showed that Adrian played the ball first as he came out to challenge Jon Flanagan, before making contact with the player and bringing him down.

While the received wisdom is that if a player makes contact with the ball first it cannot be a foul, that is not the case under the modern interpretation of the rules. Taylor could potentially have judged that having won the ball there was a secondary movement of Adrian's arms to then bring Flanagan down, with the ball still playable.

Even taking that into consideration, on balance it was a harsh decision, albeit not one that was impossible to justify. Allardyce took a long time coming in for his post-match press conference but by then the anger had subsided.

Gerrard dispatched the second with great confidence, his 10th successful penalty of the season, although the match was far from over.

The best chances after that were created by Liverpool. Suarez unaccountably missed the ball when it was cut back to him, and later clipped the bar with a chip that had Adrian beaten. There have been more spectacular victories in this remarkable run, but for Liverpool this one had a special vintage all of its own. (© Independent News Service)

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