MICHAEL OWEN'S 100th goal for Liverpool saved them from a third defeat in four Premiership games. Just two minutes of this slow-burning game remained when the striker, on as a substitute, pounced on West Ham's only defensive error to get out of the nervous nineties and negate the first-half strike by Trevor Sinclair that had seemed likely for so long to give the London side a deserved victory.
Liverpool's acting manager, Phil Thompson, said: "It's been a great year for Michael and this just caps it nicely. It was almost written for him, the last game of 2001 and he produces the goods. It was a tremendous finish, a lot of players might have snatched at it but Michael was able to lift the ball high into the net."
Liverpool started the game with a curious team. In all there were four changes from the side that had halted the Merseysiders' losing run with a 2-1 win at Aston Villa three days earlier. In addition to resting Owen, Steven Gerrard and Jari Litmanen, all of whom were on the substitutes' bench, they found they had to replace the indisposed Dietmar Hamann in that key position in front of the back four.
Thompson said it was purely a matter of saving some of his stars during the hectic Christmas period.
"Michael played five out of the last six games and Gerrard has played nine out of 10. There is another game on Tuesday. I think it would have been a travesty if we hadn't got something out of the game."
Owen's absence meant a first start in attack for former Arsenal striker Nicolas Anelka, who partnered the returning Emile Heskey, while the midfield gaps were plugged by Gary McAllister and Danny Murphy. West Ham, by comparison, were a model of continuity, England Under-21 striker Jermain Defoe replacing the suspended Paolo di Canio in their only change. Nothing much happened for 10 minutes as the teams felt each other out. West Ham's Frederic Kanoute could not make anything of a couple of half-chances, and it was not until Liverpool's Patrik Berger played the ball square from the left that either goalkeeper had a save to make. Collecting Berger's pass, Anelka forced David James to tip the ball over as the striker's 25-yard shot threatened to dip under the crossbar.
In truth, excitement was at a premium for much of the first half. A first-time shot from Sinclair rolled a foot wide at one end, while Don Hutchison cleared Sami Hyypia's glancing header off the line at the other, but that was just about it up to the 28-minute mark, when Anelka wasted two wonderful chances to put Liverpool ahead.
They came to the Frenchman courtesy of Murphy, who charged down a clearance. When the ball broke to him, Anelka had only James to beat. He tried first with his right foot, but the former Liverpool goalkeeper blocked the low shot. Then Anelka tried again, this time with his left, but again James saved. The West Ham man also did well to come out quickly to save at Heskey's feet shortly afterwards.
The deadlock was finally broken by Sinclair as the contest warmed up considerably in the 10 minutes before the interval. Stephane Henchoz had already blocked a goal-bound shot from Kanoute, and Jerzy Dudek had scrambled a Hutchison header round his near post, before Defoe made a driving run into the Liverpool penalty area after 39 minutes. Henchoz's tackle halted him but the ball squirted out to Sinclair, who beat Dudek with a shot from just outside the area.
Liverpool sent on Gerrard for McAllister at the start of the second half in a move seemingly designed to stiffen what had been a paper-thin midfield in the absence of Hamann. Enjoying more possession as a result, they also took steps to bolster their attacking potential by substituting Owen for Murphy after 58 minutes. Even so, it was West Ham who nearly scored the next goal.
When Kanoute's centre from the right was headed out, Sinclair launched himself into an extravagant overhead kick. The ball was heading for the top corner of the net until Dudek took off in a flying leap to turn it away spectacularly for a corner.
By contrast, there was no noticeable increase in Liverpool's firepower until Berger let fly after 66 minutes and James, though wrong-footed, scrambled the shot away for a corner.
With Litmanen replacing the ineffectual and remarkably casual Vladimir Smicer after 75 minutes, Liverpool piled on the pressure. Even so, Dudek remained much the busier goalkeeper, having to save at full-length from Michael Carrick, Hutchison and Defoe as West Ham defended stubbornly and countered dangerously.
Then, with time running out for Liverpool, Owen struck. Litmanen and Heskey made the opening for him, the Finnish international crossing from the left to the far post where Heskey and West Ham defender Nigel Winterburn seemed to get the ball stuck between their bodies. However, Heskey wrestled it clear and laid a pass back to Owen, who curled in his landmark goal an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the net.
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