When Liverpool's team bus was forced by stewards to park unusually far away from the Boleyn Ground on Sunday afternoon and the players, having walked the mile or so distance, arrived into a deliberately overheated dressing room, it was a fair indication of the type of old school unsettling tactics that Sam Allardyce's West Ham team would employ on the pitch. So it proved, as the Londoners, whose line was lead by former Liverpool striker and aerial-threat incarnate, Andy Carroll, hassled and harried their opponents and flighted in some 27 crosses in the hope of locating the Geordie's magnetic noggin.
This was a performance of Moyesian simplicity from West Ham, garnished with a hint of Pulisian cynicism and delivered via the promptings of the Premier League's foremost set-piece fetishist. And yes, dear readers, it was every bit as ugly as that unlovely synthesis sounds. In his own mind, Allardyce prowls the technical area with a headpiece, a cranium packed with Pro Zone stats and an impressive savoir faire, manfully ignoring the slight of never having been selected to be manager of England. In reality, he selects big powerful men like Mohamed Diamé out of position on the flanks and exhorts them to pile towards the byline in order to lob balls at the even bigger and more powerful Seventies throwback in the middle.
Carroll was in his element in this fixture. Pitted against the considerable physicality of Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, the pink shorts fancier enthusiastically led the way when it came to the more physical side of the Hammers' game, with his face poking, pointy elbow wielding and odd propensity for falling over betraying the more misanthropic leanings of his current coach. To give him his due, most Liverpool fans with an eye capable of seeing past the gold-leaf price tag that dangled from his ponytail, would attest that Carroll was a player of considerable talent and great heart. Under the lofted ball, however, he is the non-pareil but Skrtel and his defensive comrades proved impressively resolute in their resistance and the Slovakian national captain has been particularly robust and driven, of late.
Skrtel, like many of his teammates, has seemed to raise his game as the pressure has intensified, showing real leadership and no small amount of character in the process. The chrome-domed stopper insists that there is "great spirit" in Brendan Rodgers' group and that, currently at least, "everything is working well." It was not always thus, however, and although the powerful defender has been a guaranteed starter all season, missing less than twenty minutes of Premier League action, he ended the last campaign out of favour for the first time in his Anfield career and looked likely to link up with Rafa Benitez at Napoli or rejoin former club, Zenit St. Petersburg, in the summer.
Despite the extra squad depth in his position, with the additions of Kolo Touré and Sakho, Skrtel has retained his first team shirt and, whilst there have been a couple of notable errors, the doggedness, resilience and heart shown by the defender has been immense. There are hard stats to back up such anecdotal musings and although dogmatic number crunching is not usually this scribbler's forté, it is worthy of mention that Skrtel has made 32 defensive blocks so far this campaign, many of which have been seared onto our collective memory bank, so timely and inspiring have they been.
Here is a man seizing a second chance, a player of passion and character who can sense the rarest of opportunities for glory. Frankly, the tatooed giant's emergence as a goal-scoring, body-on-the-line defensive colossus has been an invigorating and gratifying sight to behold for all fans of the Redmen. Like Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge, this man is a natural winner, cramming the vitriol and dismissiveness of his detractors back down their throats with every impressively excellent performance. He is confident in his teammates' ability to see out the task ahead of them but he sounds a note of judicious caution as he looks to the remaining games of the season.
"Things are going well but there is still a long way to go," Skrtel opined. "We can’t look too far ahead. We need to keep going game to game and now our focus is on getting three points against Manchester City. We will look forward to that challenge. We know the atmosphere created by our fans will be amazing. We played well at the Etihad earlier in the season and were very unlucky not to take something from that game.
"We are going into it in great form and we will be doing everything we can to keep this winning run going. It’s exciting. This is why you play football – for a season like this. You want to be up there challenging for titles. There are still five games to play and we all want to keep going in this way and extend this winning run. We just need to stay focused and keep working."
As we enter the endgame of this most enjoyably invigorating of seasons, the reality of what may be achieved seems to have most fans simultaneously giddy with gleeful anticipation and paralysed by debilitating angst. We are, in short, a hot mess of emotional turmoil. It is fortunate then, that Martin Skrtel and his colleagues appear to have an adamant resolve and the requisite phlegm to overcome their own nerves. With each heroic block or laser-guided header on target the Slovakian is edging closer to the kind of prize that defines a career. He's in the form of his life and Liverpool Football Club need that to continue for just another five matches.