Hammers humble Liverpool to throw themselves a lifeline
West Ham gave their survival chances a huge boost with a thoroughly deserved victory over Liverpool at Upton Park.
West Ham United 3 Liverpool 1
LIVERPOOL KOP-PED it as the hungry Hammers showed that they are determined not to go down without a fight writes STEVE BLOWERS.
After kicking off in bottom spot, this pulsating performance against the recently-revived Reds earned West Ham United a richly-deserved victory that lifts them into 18th place, level on points and only one goal behind Wolverhampton Wanderers, who hover just one berth above the drop-zone.
Scott Parker’s seventh goal of the season set Avram Grant’s side on their way before Demba Ba doubled their advantage seconds before the break.
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And although ex-Hammer Glen Johnson pulled one back with six minutes remaining, substitute Carlton Cole made sure of all three points with a stoppage-time thunderbolt.
West Ham could have been forgiven for taking a longing look towards Wembley Stadium, where their semi-final conquerors Birmingham City were about to play Arsenal for the prize of the Carling Cup.
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But Premier League survival is the name of the game for Grant, who made three switches to the team that had comfortably made it into the FA Cup quarter-finals thanks to their 5-1 win over Burnley on Monday night.
Gary O’Neil, Frederic Piquionne and fit-again Matthew Upson each returned in place of Freddie Sears and substitutes Cole and Winston Reid.
That meant a first Premier League start for Thomas Hitzlsperger, who had been so instrumental on his FA Cup debut six days earlier and ‘Der Hammer’ soon tested Pepe Reina with two trademark long-rangers that thudded into the Spaniard’s ribcage.
The gritty German also found himself back in the Hammers area defending his lines but midway through the half, he was deep in Liverpool territory once more, playing his full part in the Hammers opener.
Fellow workaholic Parker collected from an overlapping Lars Jacobsen before playing another neat one-two with Hitzlsperger and, upon receiving the return pass, the recently recalled England midfielder cleverly clipped a 20-yarder beyond the outstretched groping right glove of Reina.
Undefeated in eight games, sixth-placed Liverpool had made five changes from the side that had eased into the last 16 of the Europa League with victory over Tomas Repka’s Sparta Prague on Thursday evening as skipper Steven Gerrard, Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Luis Suarez and Jamie Carragher came in for Daniel Agger plus substitutes Christian Poulsen, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, David Ngog and former Upton Park favourite Joe Cole.
But the Reds barely got into gear in a first half that saw Skrtel booked for an early trip on Piquionne, while Raul Meireles steered a header well wide and Thursday’s hero Dirk Kuyt lashed an effort into the side-netting, before Martin Kelly finally forced Robert Green into his first meaningful save of the afternoon.
That was to be Kelly’s last contribution for, with 41 minutes on the clock, he pulled a hamstring while embarking upon a gallop down the right flank and, as Joe Cole stepped from the bench, the Merseysiders’ miserable afternoon got even worse.
In the time added on for the crocked Kelly’s injury, Ba outjumped Carragher to nod Green’s huge drop-kick out to O’Neil and then the Senegalese international left the leggy Liverpool veteran for dead, as he burst to the edge of the six-yard box to meet the subsequent cross into the penalty area with a deft diving header.
Having netted his third goal for the Hammers seconds before the break, Ba then had the claret and blue fans amongst the sell-out crowd of 34,941 on their feet again just after the restart but his low 18-yarder flew just a coat of paint wide of the base of Reina’s left-hand upright.
With Ngog having replaced the limping Meireles, too, Suarez saw Green brilliantly paw away his goalbound 15-yarder, while at the other end O’Neil’s angled screamer almost tore the shirt off Carragher’s back before Jacobsen sent a rising effort inches over and Piquionne headed Mark Noble’s corner the wrong side of the far post.
On 70 minutes, the hitherto anonymous Gerrard finally reminded everyone that he was, indeed, in the capital when he let fly from 25 yards but the alert Green was on hand to guide the ball over the crossbar.
With a quarter-hour remaining, the red-faced Reina was not so assured, when he let Piquionne’s bobbling 25-yarder slip through his grasp but the Spaniard recovered in time to stop the ball squirming over the line.
Critically, there was equal embarrassment in the Hammers defence, when both Jacobsen and James Tomkins left a high ball for each other and that allowed the alert Suarez to nip in and drill a low centre across the face of goal, where Johnson has the simplest of tap-ins to give the Merseysiders a late glimmer of hope.
That set up a nervy final six minutes for an edgy East End but having just arrived in place of Ba, Cole raced onto fellow substitute Jonathan Spector’s lofted pass and after beating off the challenge of Skrtel he rifled a low 15-yarder between Reina and his near post to confirm victory with his 11th goal of the campaign.
HAMMERS: Green, Jacobsen, Bridge, Upson, Tomkins, Noble, Parker, Hitzlsperger, O’Neil, Piquionne (Spector 81), Ba (C. Cole 88). Unused: Boffin, Reid, Boa Morte, Da Costa, Hines.
LIVERPOOL: Reina, Johnson, Kelly (J. Cole 42), Skrtel, Carragher, Wilson, Meireles (Ngog 49), Gerrard, Lucas, Kuyt, Suarez. Unused: Gulasci, Kyrgiakos, Rodriguez, Spearing, Poulsen.
Referee: Mark Halsey. Attendance: 34, 941