Sunday, April 7, 2013
Liverpool stutter to stalemate
Richard Jolly, Anfield
It is an unwanted Anfield tradition, dating back many a year. The damaging draw was a feature of the reigns of Rafa Benitez and Kenny Dalglish and, while Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool have tended to deal in boom or bust, veering between emphatic wins and hurtful defeats with no half-way house, a stalemate nonetheless conformed to a familiar theme.
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The Rodgers revolution - or, more accurately, the Rodgers evolution - is interrupted by stuttering and spluttering. Just when Liverpool seem to acquire pace in their progress, they stall again. When victory at Aston Villa appeared to position them for an end-of-season surge into the top six, what looked one of the simplest fixtures proved among the most awkward. West Ham, who often suffer from an acute case of travel sickness themselves, may have ensured that Liverpool aren't heading to Europe next season.
"Our aims are simple: to finish as high as we can," Rodgers said. That could prove to be seventh, and second in the Merseyside mini-league. If so, a lack of consistency will prove a prime cause. After every encouraging run comes a setback: against Aston Villa in December, West Brom in February, Southampton in March and now West Ham in April. "I am very frustrated," the Northern Irishman added.
He would have been even more irritated had West Ham ended a 50-year wait. Without a win at Anfield since 1963, they came agonisingly close to a historic feat. Jack Collison's late header was kneed off the line by Lucas, stopping the Welshman replacing the future World Cup winners Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst as the last Hammers to secure victory away at Liverpool.
"We should have won it," Sam Allardyce said. "Our consistent quality defending allowed us to create the best chances of the game." That was stretching it a little, though Mohamed Diame, with typical power and unexpected deftness, carved himself an opening and shot over. However, as Allardyce accepted, his side were lacking a cutting edge, particularly with Andy Carroll ineligible to face his parent club and Carlton Cole, an altogether blunter instrument, deputising in attack. They compensated with a remarkable rearguard action.
"The defending side has earned us a point," Allardyce said. "The finishing side needs to get an awful lot better before we pick more wins up." Indeed, while a draw cannot normally be described as the best possible result, this might be the exception. Consider the statistics that may have depressed many in London's East End: West Ham were without a win in 41 trips to Anfield, Allardyce had lost on each of his previous eight visits and no team have fewer goals on the road.
They could take solace, however, in Liverpool's inability to score. Guy Demel made a magnificent interception to ensure the most inviting of crosses from Steven Gerrard did not lead to a goal. James Tomkins twice thwarted the Liverpool captain with a goal-line clearance and, despite the home team's appeals for a penalty, a perfectly-timed tackle. James Collins handled Luis Suarez as well as any visiting defender at Anfield this season.
The Uruguayan was not anonymous, but then he never is. Rather his chances were fewer, his impact lessened a little. Philippe Coutinho provided glimpses of class but Daniel Sturridge, who came on for the ill Stewart Downing, was less prominent. The substitute did think he had scored, rerouting a Jordan Henderson shot to the back of the net. "Clearly onside," Rodgers said, but as referee Anthony Taylor had missed a Suarez handball seconds earlier, justice was done, albeit indirectly.
"We created chances but just couldn't score," Rodgers added. Yet despite his assertion that Liverpool pushed for a goal from the first whistle, it was the most subdued of starts, with Anfield so quiet that it was possible to hear Jamie Carragher barking orders. The volume levels only raised when the players took an impromptu drink break in the first half, bringing boos from the stands.
And so, just when Liverpool were the Premier League's most prolific team in 2013, winning home games with a swagger and a glut of goals, stalemate ensued. The Anfield enigmas confounded expectations. Again.
MAN OF THE MATCH: James Tomkins. Probably would not have played but for Winston Reid's thigh injury, but the Englishman was superb. Besides denying Liverpool a goal, Allardyce thought he should have earned West Ham a penalty for a challenge by Jose Enrique.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Rodgers' reluctance to change a winning team is evident but he probably should not have started with Downing, as his inclusion was one reason their start was so slow. When Sturridge came on, Liverpool were a little unbalanced, sometimes with the substitute or Suarez purporting to be a right winger and sometimes with Glen Johnson as a one-man right flank. Rodgers praised his defence but, in reality, all they had to do was keep Cole quiet.
WEST HAM VERDICT: After eight defeats in ten away games, this was a terrific result, and they were excellent at the back. As Allardyce pointed out, he was without several players, in Reid, Mark Noble, Joe Cole and the ineligible Carroll, who would have started. The manager deserves credit for a fine substitution. When Liverpool were applying pressure on the hour mark, Allardyce sent for Matt Taylor and Collison and they stiffened his side up. West Ham have 37 points now and three more should ensure their safety.