Gerrard hammers home Red's message

IT was a match strewn with potential hazards: the team bottom of the table on the rebound. Liverpool jaded from their trip to Europe. And Upton Park something of a bogey ground for the Reds.

And while Liverpool never hit their top form, the capture of a point was far from the most depressing scenario in the circumstances.

Add the fact Michael Owen was ruled out with a stiff back from the midweek win over Rapid Bucharest to compound an already heavy casualty list, and you see why Gerard Houllier was left smiling at the end of the game.

Of course, a win would have sent a definite message to Manchester United and the growing band declaring the championship race effectively over but Liverpool remain fourth, in touch with the leaders and clear of their probable rivals in the end-of-season shake-up for European places.

The news that Owen was out, deemed significant enough to be relayed several times by a jubilant public address announcer, was met with a relieved cheer from the Upton Park crowd before kick-off.

The question was where the Liverpool goals would come from. The little striker's form has been brilliant of late and his absence was sorely missed. It meant Emile Heskey being left to plough a lone furrow up front, with Danny Murphy in the hole behind.

Both worked hard but failed to put the underworked Shaka Hislop under any sort of serious pressure, but the defence-minded formation limited their opportunities to launch a regular assault on the Hammers goal.

Christian Ziege was relegated to the bench after making his full debut against Rapid in midweek, with youngster Djimi Traore taking over at left-back and Steven Gerrard back again while Bernard Diomede returned to substitute duty.

Liverpool's defence breached only by a second-half penalty converted by Paolo Di Canio looked solid throughout with Markus Babbel and Stephane Henchoz resolute in the centre.

After tossing away leads, most memorably against Southampton who came from 3-0 down to draw at the Dell, the solidity of the back four was an encouraging sign. And that's without the injured Sami Hyypia.

"Southampton was completely different," insisted Houllier.

"That was an off day. Today the defence looked solid but maybe I'd have liked us to hang on to the lead for a bit longer."

It was Gerrard, operating on the right side of midfield, who opened the scoring in the 12th minute, rounding off a sweeping, slick Liverpool move.

Nick Barmby ran at the Hammers defence before off-loading to Murphy wide on his left. He whipped in a fine cross to the far post for Gerrard to gleefully finish past Shaka Hislop with his outstretched right leg.

For West Ham, Di Canio and Joe Cole were a constant thorn in Liverpool's side. Their tricks, flicks and backheels were breathtaking.

The Italian schemer Di Canio shot tamely at Sander Westerveld minutes after Gerrard's strike, and mid-way through the half the home side squandered a clear chance to get back on terms.

Di Canio out-foxed Rigobert Song and his cross was diverted by Gerrard and flashed to Trevor Sinclair at the far post but his header, under pressure from Westerveld, flew over the bar.

Liverpool gave the ball away too much as the half wore on, inviting unnecessary pressure on themselves, but despite Hammers' best efforts Harry Redknapp's team couldn't find a way through.

Gerrard, though, continued to sparkle. A raking 50-yard cross-field pass picked out Barmby in space another reminder of why his regular presence in the side could be so important in determining Liverpool's fortunes this season.

His vision and ability to spray the ball around quickly and with a minimum of fuss was impressive. He also tracked back and tackled hard in a high-class first-half performance. If only he can stay free of injury.

Liverpool paid at times for their slowness on the counter-attack with several swift moves floundering in the final third, but the ravaging effects of injury were partly to blame.

Robbie Fowler was again on the bench but he is still short of match fitness. Responsibility fell to Heskey, who was isolated for large chunks of the game.

West Ham continued to create the better openings after the break, Cole firing over from 25 yards seven minutes after the restart and Frenchman Frederick Kanoute dragging a low shot wide of the sprawling Westerveld moments later.

Kanoute fluffed a more definite chance to throw his side a lifeline after 66 minutes from a Sinclair cross but the Hammers' goal came five minutes later courtesy of the irrespressible Di Canio.

The Italian played a fine ball over the top to Kanoute, who delayed his shot and was blocked by the otherwise impressive Henchoz in the box. Referee David Elleray pointed to the spot.

It looked a harsh decision to the naked eye but up stepped Di Canio to coolly and duly roll the equaliser past Westerveld.

It was the Liverpool goal under the greater threat as West Ham gave a clear signal that they are far from relegation fodder, even though the result leaves them rivetted to the bottom.

They are more than the sum of Di Canio's party pieces, flicks and back-heels.

Their determination to fight from a goal adrift, their purpose and drive means they're no roll over, and places in context Liverpool's injury-hit rearguard's real scrap to hold parity.

Houllier brought on Vegard Heggem and Christian Ziege for Murphy and a hobbling Gerrard deja vu, anyone? in an attempt to inject fresh legs into the fray.

Heskey, who had shot horribly wide moments earlier, dragged a low shot wide in the last minute in a rare Liverpool raid.

Closing the game out would have been ideal for Liverpool. It would have buried memories of those sloppy goals against Southampton and Manchester City, but still managing to take a point without playing all that well is a priceless commodity.

Liverpool are only three places behind leaders United and remember Owen, Fowler, Jamie Redknapp, Patrik Berger, Vladimir Smicer and Hyypia still wait ominously in the wings.

Some prospect.

WEST HAM:Hislop, Stimac, Ferdinand, Pearce, Lomas, Cole, Sinclair, Winterburn, Carrick, Di Canio, Kanoute. Subs: Forrest, Peacock, Keller, Potts.

LIVERPOOL: Westerveld, Henchoz, Song, Babbel, Heskey, Murphy (Ziege 70), Hamann, Gerrard (Heggem 71), Barmby, Carragher, Traore. Subs: Arphexad, Fowler, Diomede.

BOOKINGS: Liverpool's Murphy, Song.

REFEREE: D Elleray (Harrow).

ATT: 25,998.

© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

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