Liverpool 4, West Ham 1: Strange Win Sees Liverpool Go Second

Clive Brunskill

Liverpool earn all three points in a match that proved more nervy at times than it needed to be against West Ham, securing second place ahead of a critical stretch to finish the month of December.

Two wins from three in a week ain't bad, especially considering that it started in the worst manner possible. Yet six days after their dismal display against Hull at the KC Stadium, Liverpool stand second in the Premier League table, level on points with Chelsea but ahead on goal difference after a well-fought win over West Ham at Anfield. It wasn't as clear-cut as the scoreline suggests, especially after Martin Skrtel's own goal, but the day ends with another three points for the hosts ahead of the most important stretch of the season.

Liverpool 4: Demel (og) 42', Sakho 47', Suarez 80', O'Brien (og) 84'
West Ham 1: Skrtel (og) 66'

Little changed about the side that beat Norwich 5-1 on Wednesday other than at the back, where Mamadou Sakho finally came into the eleven for Daniel Agger, who was reportedly out through illness. Otherwise things were unchanged, with Lucas again on the bench and a resurgent Joe Allen included alongside Steven Gerrard, and Raheem Sterling getting his third start in as many games after finding minutes hard to come by earlier in the season.

West Ham played Liverpool well last season and continued that trend in the first half, with some solid defensive organization and quick breaks leaving the hosts dominant in possession but frustrated in the final third. Things nearly got worse for Liverpool just after the twenty minute mark were it not for Simon Mignolet's superb reflex save, denying Modibo Maiga a chance to put West Ham in the lead with a firm header from a Matt Jarvis cross.

Going a goal down would have deflated Liverpool in a manner all too familiar, but they responded with further pressing and possession, and on 42 minutes they finally caught a break. Joe Allen's smart pressing pinged the ball back in to Luis Suarez, who ended up with a shot on goal after Glen Johnson played him in on the right. Jussi Jasskelainen made a good low save, but the rebound went straight into Guy Demel and bounded back into goal. It was ugly, sure, but it was a 1-0 lead headed into the half, even if Liverpool nearly gave it away with more nervy set piece defending.

It didn't take long for Liverpool to double the lead in the second half, as Mamadou Sakho kneed a perfect Steven Gerrard free-kick toward goal, with a helpless James Collins left to smash it only into the top of the net. Liverpool cruised from there with some of their best stuff from open play all season, wholly dominating their visitors and not missing a beat even when Gerrard came off due to injury.

Unfortunately that was interrupted by another Martin Skrtel own goal in the 66th minute, knocking Liverpool off their stride and giving West Ham a foothold back into the match. The Slovakian's toe-poke past Mignolet would prove the only time the Belgian would be beaten on the day, however, and another Luis Suarez goal--this one a header from a delightful cross by Glen Johnson--cushioned Liverpool's lead before the Uruguayan sealed it late, blasting a drive off Joey O'Brien and in off the crossbar to finish the match off at 4-1.

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In the end, a weird win for Liverpool, who've found points in these types of matches hard to come by in seasons past. Stingy opposition playing smartly in defense and on the break, forcing Liverpool to spend much of their possession on the periphery of the penalty area without allowing the crucial final ball. And, even with a two-goal lead, a mistake that very well could have turned the tide completely, leading to points lost in a match that had once looked so straightforward.

But none of that played out as it had in the past, and some created fortune and a more controlled performance down the stretch meant Liverpool get all three points to go along with a fair bit of momentum after the week started so poorly. It wasn't a performance we'll be talking about for years to come, but it's one that could prove critical as Liverpool fight to remain in the top four as the new year approaches.

There were a number of standout performances as Liverpool looked improved from their past two matches--Mignolet made the crucial save early and flashed some wonderful distribution with a long throw out to Raheem Sterling, who again grew in confidence as the match wore on. Mamadou Sakho was excellent in his return to the starting eleven, and Joe Allen was terrific in central midfield, showing signs that he's nearly back to his best. And Luis Suarez, who might never again reach the heights of his display on Wednesday, got another goal (and maybe should have been given the other) at a crucial time. Philippe Coutinho impressed again, and Lucas' appearance in place of the injured captain helped Liverpool steady themselves in the midfield after Skrtel's own goal.

Obviously some down notes as well, highlighted by another poor Jordan Henderson performance in the attacking third and a poor showing off the bench from Victor Moses. The latter is remedied by minutes that might not be coming any time soon, while the former seemed addressed by a change in shape once Lucas came on. That the change in shape came about only as a result of the skipper's injury worries, as he'd had one of his typically impressive displays against an opponent that did little to harass or harry him on the ball.

The march to January continues, and now Liverpool well and truly enter the season's toughest stretch to date. Away to Spurs next weekend, home to Cardiff, and trips to Manchester City and Chelsea three days in the the final week of 2013. And yet whatever happens in the next four fixtures, it feels as though days like today will do more to determine where things stand in May, and Liverpool have to feel good about what they've done to get themselves to this point.

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