Liverpool Daily Post report

ONE down, two to go. Having been handed a run of fixtures he could not have hand-picked better himself while attempting to cope with the problems caused by absent friends, so Gerard Houllier sat back and for once watched his team stick to their side of the bargain.

Man-of-the-match Titi Camara's 44th-minute goal, wrapped in personal sadness following the death of his father earlier in the day, earned Liverpool the victory they deserved, but more importantly craved and desperately needed, against West Ham.

Overall it was hard-fought, tight, unspectacular and towards the end fraught affair, none of which actually matters.

For last night was all about winning and beginning a crucial spell of three home games in 10-days, which will go a long way to shaping the season, in the best possible manner.

As the three points lifted Liverpool into the top half of the Premiership, level with Everton and only six behind Manchester United, so there were signs that the confidence is`slowly returning that can help to continue the climb onwards and upwards.

More of the same, a bit more polish than spit perhaps, against Bradford City and Derby County is vital if the current mini-run of four games unbeaten is not going to turn into yet another false dawn.

Even then, it will not be enough to totally convince that Liverpool, who almost seemed intent on courting a Hammers equaliser after the interval, have turned a corner.

However, one target at a time, and at the moment that is gleaning nine points over the next 10-days.

Having sat and watched an unconvincing opening in which his side found it difficult to even launch a meaningful raid against their opponents, whose ability at playing keep-ball should have produced more, Houllier's decision to move from directors' box to bench sparked a noticeable response.

Camara found the overlapping Rigobert Song eager to keep his team-mates going forward and his precise pass picked out David Thompson in space, who forced Shaka Hislop to make an excellent finger-tip save from his fierce drive.

Buoyed by the ease in which they had cut a swathe through an under-strength defence, what little confidence Liverpool currently possess became more evident as the passing and movement, so predictable in recent weeks, edged towards matching what is more normally expected.

Hislop's goal began to lead a charmed life as crosses whizzed across his six-yard box, while the hardworking Erik Meijer saw a first-time volley drift past a post on 24 minutes and Camara showed excellent awareness to volley a loose ball under pressure which grazed the crossbar.

Their ascendancy was not immediately rewarded, however, by a goal; and with teenager Joe Cole a will o' the wisp figure just behind the West Ham forward line, a threat to the improvement shown by a defence marshalled by Stephane Henchoz and Sami Hyypia was never far away.

As unpredictable as Liverpool, especially on their travels, the Londoners were without their own talismanic figure in Paolo Di Canio and saw Houllier attempt to stiffle the attack-minded Trevor Sinclair at wing-back by recalling Dominic Matteo as one of four changes.

It proved an interesting battle. Sinclair almost gained the upper-hand by forcing Sander Westerveld into a sharp, diving save after a deft lay-off from the gangling Wanchope, before fading badly after the break for which the often maligned Matteo should be given credit.

The cat and mouse continued with Jamie Redknapp and Jamie Carragher, the latter booked for unceremoniously tugging the impish Cole back as he threatened to break through, going close and Paulo Wanchope simply going AWOL when Paul Kitson cleverly centred in space.

However, the breakthrough Liverpool merited duly arrived just a minute before the interval.

It came from the irrepressible Camara, whose unpredictability coupled with Meijer's willingness to chase every ball and harry ever opponent, ask Neil Ruddock, more than made up for the continuing absence of the more high profile Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler.

The Guinea striker moved to the top of the scoring, as well as the popularity, charts after a well-crafted, patient move down the right flank involving Thompson and Song, who pushed his fellow African close for the after-match plaudits.

Rather than launch an early centre more in hope than anything else, the duo worked an opening for Song to reach the by-line and his low centre was bundled over the line by Camara at the far post with Rio Ferdinand red-faced.

While the manager's so-called 'Dream Team' is frustratingly kept in cold storage, there is a chance for those players whom Houllier may not consider to be in his first choice XI to ensure that when Dietmar Hamann, Owen, and Fowler regain fitness they do not automatically walk straight back in.

Camara comes into that category. His pace and directness do offer a different dimension; his bravery following the loss of his father earlier in the day probably beyond the call of duty.

Having grabbed the lead, holding on to it was the next problem as Houllier watched his side become increasingly encamped in their own half, seemingly intent on dangerously following his request for 1-0 wins to the letter.

For all the on-going talk of defensive frailties and leaky rearguards, Liverpool actually boast the fourth best record in the Premiership.

That is nowhere near good enough for Houllier, who has made it quite clear that if the statistic still rings true at Christmas time, he will gladly attach more significance to it.

But progress is undoubtedly being made, with Henchoz's willingness to anticipate rather than merely react to situations seeing him stand tall alongside Hyypia, who was well . . . Sami Hyypia.

Ever the perfectionist, Houllier is, of course, quite right to delay popping the champagne corks and toasting old demons an overdue farewell.

The alertness of Song was required to prevent parity being restored on 54-minutes after Cole had beaten the covering Berger and squared to Frank Lampard. His shot squeezed through Westerveld's guard but was hacked clear as the ball rolled agonisingly towards the line.

Young Cole, who looks to be everything the southern hype portrays him as, began to exert a growing influence and from his free-kick Ruddock was inches away from applying a headed touch that would have threatened Westerveld's claims to a clean sheet.

There was the occasional break from the pressure as Thompson seized upon a misplaced pass from Steve Lomas but could only find the side netting from close range, while Camara was equally wasteful moments earlier ignoring Meijer and shooting high and wide.

That is the nature of the beast though and when he shook off Ferdinand and nonchalantly chipped Hislop, he was unlucky to see the 'goal' disallowed for a perceived infringement against the England centre-half.

With Vegard Heggem on for Thompson, an emotionally-drained Camara, who had Ruddock reduced to orchestrating a dirty tricks campaign against both him and Meijer in a bid to limit their influence, was replaced by Vladimir Smicer, thrust into the attacking role he favours for the Czech Republic.

The ebb and flow continued to the wire as the off-form Wanchope fluffed an opening as the ball stuck between his feet and Westerveld produced a smart save from Kitson.

Liverpool, fighting for their lives, countered with Heggem seeing a header cleared off the line by Kitson from Berger's corner and then the Czech saw Hislop get just enough on the ball to send his shot wide after being played in the Norwegian.

There remained the nagging suspicion right until Stephen Lodge's final whistle brought a crescendo of cheers that an equaliser would arrived. But for once a growing body of evidence hinting at despair wasn't borne out.

A win. A clean sheet. Small steps maybe; but important nevertheless.

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld, Song, Hyypia, Henchoz, Matteo; Thompson (Heggem 74), Carragher, Redknapp, Berger; Camara (Smicer 79), Meijer. Subs not used: Neilsen, Gerrard.

WEST HAM UNITED (3-5-2): Hislop, Potts, Ferdinand, Ruddock; Sinclair, Lampard, Cole, Lomas, Keller; Wanchope, Kitson. Subs: Forrest, Moncur, Foe, Margas, Newton.

Referee: Stephen Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Carragher (foul 30), Keller (foul 48).

Copyright - Liverpool Daily Post report

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