LONDON -- At times this season it has felt as if Liverpool was on a one-team mission to prove that you can win this league without ever lapsing into ugly, disjointed football.
Whatever the system Brendan Rodgers employs, his front four invariably weaves pretty passing patterns in the final third and plunders goals. Lots and lots of goals.
|WEST HAM 1-2 LIVERPOOL
|MATCH REPORT: Gerrard strikes twice from the spot to send visitors top|
TOP OF THE MATCH: Liverpool skipper takes the plaudits at Upton Park
At Upton Park on Saturday, however, it quickly became clear that another way would have to be found. West Ham was a muscular, bullying adversary, building every move around the hulking figure of Andy Carroll, who gave Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho a torrid time.
At the other end Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, the two stunning “soloists” around whom Rodgers has built this swashbuckling team, played as if they were completely unaware of each other’s presence. Suarez hit the crossbar twice and was a constant source of panic. Sturridge had his moments too, but selfishness meant they never achieved the sum of their spectacular parts.
Time and again Liverpool wasted counter-attacking opportunities with a wayward shot when a pass would have been more appropriate, while Carroll wreaked havoc in the opposite area. West Ham never led, but it often looked as if the ninth consecutive victory needed to take the Reds back to the top of the Premier League would elude them.
But whenever Liverpool encounters adversity, it pays to remember that it still has Steven Gerrard. The 34-year-old is no longer the force of nature which propelled his club to its greatest triumphs under Rafa Benitez, but Rodgers has helped him refine his game and find a new way to affect matches from the base of midfield. Here he was the difference.
It helps that Suarez, despite not being at his unplayable best, remains exceptionally adept at winning penalties. If that sounds like a criticism it should not – James Tomkins could do nothing but let the Uruguayan’s devilish flick strike his hand and take the yellow card which inevitably followed.
In the second half Jon Flanagan was perhaps more fortunate to see Adrian penalized for catching him and the ball, though Liverpool would argue that justice was done after Carroll appeared to manhandle Simon Mignolet in the build-up to Guy Demel’s equalizer.
But both key moments were met nervelessly by Liverpool’s inspirational captain. His first penalty sent Adrian the wrong way and, though the Spaniard guessed right the second time, he still may as well have been in a different ZIP code as he watched the ball fly past him.
After the match Gerrard remained diplomatic. "I’m not convinced just yet [that we can win the title],” he told Sky Sports. “There are some very hard games to go. We’ve got a huge game next week. The message is to stay calm and every time we go out on the pitch we've got to leave every single ounce of energy out there."
Yet he has played with a guiding sense of destiny in recent weeks, driven on by the apparently unshakeable belief that, after so many disappointments, this may finally be the Premier League season which ends with the trophy nestling in his arms. Both Chelsea and Manchester City still have to visit Anfield, but it is Rodgers’ men who appear freshest and boast the greatest momentum.
Meanwhile Gerrard now has 11 goals in his last 16 matches, many from the pressure cooker of the penalty spot. It is hard to imagine any defensive midfielder in history enjoying such a prolific scoring run, but then he remains so much more than that to Liverpool.
He is the heart and soul of the club, its greatest ever captain, and the greatest player never to win the Premier League. But maybe the latter will soon change.
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