Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard show Liverpool what might have been
Fatboy Slim's handbag-house offering "Right Here Right Now" had been the choice of Upton Park's PA controller ahead of the locals' ritual singing of the ode about blowing bubbles. Yet though the track from Brighton's only superstar-DJ may have talked more to Liverpool's need yet again to maintain the pressure on Manchester United by beating West Ham, the feeling was that the now-or-never moment had occurred three weeks ago.
That was when Liverpool's chances of claiming the Premier League after 19 years moved from realistic to moribund courtesy of Andrei Arshavin's quadruple in Arsenal's 4-4 draw at Anfield. It meant that all Rafael Benítez's men could do was to keep on winning. And hoping.
Hoping that United's nerve will slip, a scenario that gets its latest outing this afternoon in the Manchester derby. As for the winning bit, Liverpool's victory here was a canter that ended in a stroll when the substitute Ryan Babel made it 3-0 minutes from time after an opening stanza that had, essentially, sealed the points. "The pressure is on United now. Come on City," said Benítez, who had a permanent smile for the press corps after the finish. "We have done our job, now its down to United. I won't be going to the ground to watch, but I will see it on TV and wear a blue scarf maybe – I will be supporting City.
"They are always tough to beat in those derbies and City also know a victory could put them in a place for Europe." Now came a twinkle, as he added a touch more of what he hopes will be telling pressure on the champions. "I always tell my side to finish as high as possible. I'm sure Mark Hughes will say the same to them."
The first half here ended in near farce, with referee Alan Wiley offering a more hirsute impression of the unfortunate Tom Herring Ovrebo, the bald referee from Norway who had a shocker at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday.
Before this, though, it had taken a mere two minutes for Gianfranco Zola to see his team allow Liverpool far too soft an opener. Fernando Torres was allowed enough time to pick out Steven Gerrard, who had a full gallop on down the inside-right channel. The skipper's smooth finish beyond a floundering Robert Green carried a warning. This was that West Ham might find themselves dumped from the contest even earlier than Arsenal had been by United in their midweek Champions League tussle.
This particular threat might have passed. But when they did manage to play some football in Liverpool's half, West Ham lacked their opponents' ability to put foot to throat and cause real suffering. After 26 minutes, Mark Noble precisely placed the ball on Radoslav Kovác's head, but the midfielder's effort was high. Which was about as good as it got for the Hammers. Instead, the half ended with a second for Gerrard that arrived as Wiley got his Ovrebo impression up and running. It began when Torres came together with Luis Boa Morte in the area – the decision to award the penalty appeared debatable to say the least.
"It was also free-kick before that," Zola reckoned. But Wiley pointed to the spot. Gerrard's penalty was saved by Green, but his finish from the rebound made it 2-0.
Now came the comedy. Jamie Carragher completely missed when hoping to connect a regulation boot to ball. David Di Michele pounced and ran at Jose Reina. His snake-hipped dummy removed the Spaniard from the argument, but as the striker rounded him he slipped and ended with a face-full of grass. Up ran Wiley to complete the Italian's humiliation by showing him a yellow card. Still, had Di Michele really dived instead of scoring?
"I don't think it was simulation," declared Zola, who offered his own echo of Ovrebo when saying of Wiley: "The referee is a human being and makes mistakes. Unfortunately, today was the case."
The early moments of the second half did not augur well for any comeback, as Yossi Benayoun and Torres threatened to finish off proceedings. When Zola's team advanced, their attacks fizzled out or there was no finish, such as when a now-flustered Di Michele walloped wide.
What Liverpool, for their part, have beyond the solid defence and steel-tough midfield which are regulation issue for all title contenders is the ability to counter-attack as ruthlessly as Manchester United. We were shown exactly howwhen a foray from the home team broke up and Gerrard's run span West Ham on their heels. It ended with Dirk Kuyt unable to manage what Babel did when the Dutchman, on for Torres, smashed past Green.
Liverpool's striker had left proceedings 15 minutes earlier for his pipe and slippers. If City can turn over United, it will be cigar time on Merseyside.
* Robert Green,
* Herita Ilunga,
* Lucas Neill,
* James Tomkins,
* Matthew Upson,
* Junior Stanislas (Jack Collison, 59),
* Mark Noble,
* Radoslav Kovac,
* Luis Boa Morte (Josh Payne, 80),
* Diego Tristan,
* David Di Michele (Freddie Sears, 70)
* Jose Manuel Reina,
* Alvaro Arbeloa,
* Fabio Aurelio (Emiliano Insua, 54),
* Martin Skrtel,
* Jamie Carragher,
* Steven Gerrard,
* Lucas Leiva,
* Javier Mascherano,
* Yossi Benayoun (Andrea Dossena, 82),
* Dirk Kuyt,
* Fernando Torres (Ryan Babel, 72)
Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard show Liverpool what might have been
The ease of this win was a tease. Here was a tantalising reminder that, if Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard had been spared injury this season, Liverpool might now have the destination of the Premier League title in their own hands. Gerrard's brace at Upton Park means the pair have scored 16 goals from the 12 league starts they have made together in this campaign, but still this week they are reliant on others preventing Manchester United from taking the title. That rankles.
"It's all ifs and buts as to what might have happened if we had stayed fit," said Gerrard. "Without sounding big-headed there is a confidence when we are on the pitch that we can win football matches, so to not have him fit has been so frustrating. We work with each other in training and we enjoy playing together, we can both set each other up and both score goals. There is an understanding there between us.
"Though it's difficult watching Manchester United at the moment I will watch them on Wednesday [against Wigan]," Gerrard went on. "We want to win the league and, while it's still possible, I'm going to hope and keep my fingers crossed that United slip up."
Rafael Benítez will also be watching on Wednesday and, though he chuckled when asked whether he expects a side managed by Steve Bruce to defy Sir Alex Ferguson, he said: "You have to have confidence that in the Premier League everyone can beat everyone."
Hope may eternally spring but many at Anfield cannot help lamenting the autumn and winter. Liverpool have lost fewer games than United this season but it is the excessive draws between September and January that may cost them the title. The ruthlessness with which they dismembered West Ham at Upton Park was absent when they dominated bluntly against the same team in December, that 0-0, along with identical scorelines against Stoke, Fulham and Aston Villa, fuelling current regrets.
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