Liverpool 2: Sterling 51', Sturridge 80'
West Ham 0
In a match that yet again looked to be defined by missed opportunities, Liverpool relied on their match-winners--one of whom hasn't featured since August--to earn what was largely a comfortable win over a blunt but nonthreatening West Ham side. First it was Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling combining, and then it was the long-absent Daniel Sturridge, in his first appearance since August, latching onto another Coutinho pass and firing a right-footed shot past Adrian to kill a match that should have been won far earlier.
Liverpool were comfortable throughout, with the visitors providing little going forward other than elbows. As expected, Sam Allardyce's side tried to bully Liverpool whenever possible. Andy Carroll bloodied Emre Can's lip early, setting the tone for an opening 45 minutes that remarkably didn't include any bookings. That spoke more to the incompetence of Andre Marriner, who also turned down a clear penalty just before the break.
Marriner's inept officiating was annoying but had little to do with Liverpool wasting their own chances; Sterling, Coutinho, Jordan Henderson, and Lazar Markovic all missed their first-half chances at giving their side the lead, with the young Serbian's the best of the lot on the heels of the strong appeal for a penalty after Sterling was dragged down by Joey O'Brien.
It looked to be the same story after the restart, but a bit of magic from Coutinho and a cool finish by Sterling gave Liverpool the lead their dominance deserved. Sterling's chest control from a Alberto Moreno cross almost wrong-footed Coutinho, but he somehow managed to get enough of a toe on it to play Sterling through over the top, and the 20-year-old striker slotted coolly into the side netting for the lead.
Allardyce made changes but found little joy, and Sturridge's introduction eventually gave Liverpool a second. Sturridge was clearly rusty in the build-up, with a first touch that let him down and a few underhit passes, but in front of goal it was the same as it ever was, and his second shot on target produced a long-awaited second Premier League goal. One touch into space from a Coutinho pass and past Adrian in the blink of an eye, with celebrations to follow the underlined the importance of his return to the side.
A late cameo from Jordon Ibe gave further glimpses of some neat attacking football from Rodgers' squad, who were clearly energized by the presence of Sturridge. Few disappointed on the day, with Coutinho and Sterling combining well up front despite early frustrations and Mamadou Sakho turning in as good an individual defensive display as Liverpool have seen all season. Improvements continued for Simon Mignolet in goal, while the rest mostly impressed in their own right, with Adam Lallana actually looking better after shifting to wingback on the right side and Emre Can settling well after some early wobbles against the pacy Enner Valencia.
The hope now is that Liverpool can continue their solidity in defense and midfield while adding a finishing touch for what will be a season-defining February. If they can manage that, they really are capable of making a run in the FA Cup or Europa League, and with the Merseyside derby setting the stage for three straight matches against sides ahead of them in the league table, there's ground to be made up.
Form, fitness, and finishing will determine the fate of Liverpool's season, but spirit and belief will play a part as well. If the confidence and energy over the final twenty minutes of the match are any indication, it's going to be an exciting final few months.