Football: Sinclair stalls Houllier revival

West Ham break deadlock to end Liverpool's winning streak as Owen takes dive before limping off
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The Independent Online
West Ham United 1 Liverpool 0 Sinclair 44 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 26,043

LIVERPOOL, WHO found themselves pariahs of Europe after a mundane last season, have been feasting voraciously from the Premiership table of late. But West Ham are no easy pickings at home, as they emphasised yet again yesterday. Harry Redknapp's side remain unbeaten at Upton Park after a contest which only became the spectacle it promised once Trevor Sinclair had secured a lead for his side when most of the faithful were already well on their way to a half-time cuppa.

Gerard Houllier's team, having asserted themselves ominously in the higher echelons of the league, must have harboured optimistic thoughts of extending a run of four Premiership victories, with the opposition already apparently displaying signs of fatigue. The east Londoners, not endowed with playing numbers, had already played 25 games to Liverpool's 15. But how frequently do we see such expectations founder at this claustrophobic stadium, where Redknapp's men yield points unwillingly.

Liverpool's youngsters, Danny Murphy and David Thompson, who replaced the injured Patrik Berger, performed brightly enough, but failed to produce enough clear opportunities to merit the point they probably just deserved.

Liverpool's four successive victories had started with the 1-0 triumph against West Ham a month ago when Titi Camara had scored. He was not available yesterday and neither was the West Ham manager's son, Jamie, whose swollen knee will require surgery tomorrow, with Kevin Keegan no doubt concerned that he will available for the Euro 2000 preparations.

There was always going to be a sub-plot to events. The combination of Paolo Di Canio the Graham Barber, the Premiership's most draconian referee - such an enthusiastic distributor of cards that he averaged over six a game before yesterday - promised an intriguing confrontation. Particularly so, as Houllier had accused the Italian of diving, overacting and provocation. Nobody could accuse him of sitting on the fence over the issue. After all, Di Canio had been involved in the sending off of Arsenal's Patrick Vieira and Sheffield Wednesday's Danny Sonner.

It all shows how wrong preconceptions can be. Quite simply, nobody played to character. Mr Barber was positively niggardly with his cautions, Di Canio behaved impeccably and, ironically, it was Houllier's own young master, Michael Owen, who incurred the official's displeasure and received a first-half caution for diving.

Similarly, the showdown anticipated between the teenagers Owen, that predator with chilling precision, and Joe Cole, West Ham's impudent attacking midfielder, must wait for another day. Owen was substituted before the end after a disappointing display and the always entertaining Cole displayed his inexperience.

Before half-time, Liverpool's strategy of deploying Owen as a solitary striker, but supported by Murphy, with Berger and Vegard Heggem converging from the flanks, looked like frustrating West Ham. Until their goal in added time, the home team had failed to test the goalkeeper, Sander Westerveld. When Cole, who appeared the most plausible conduit for attack, used his considerable wiles to pressure the visitors' rearguard, Paulo Wanchope and Di Canio too frequently found themselves outnumbered by a defence which, of late, has begun to show the resistance that was synonymous with Liverpool teams of the past.

It is significant that of their seven-game unbeaten run before yesterday, five had been without a goal conceded. Sami Hyypia, the towering Finn, must take much of the credit for that, though comparisons already being made with Alan Hansen and Tony Adams are possibly a trifle premature. Captain here yesterday in the absence of Redknapp, the central defender, signed from the Dutch club Willem II for pounds 2.6m, has quietly impressed in his 18 games for Liverpool. In truth, he and his fellow defenders will face more rigorous examinations.

Indeed, neither team have been particularly prolific scorers this season - ignoring West Ham's 4-3 defeat of Sheffield Wednesday last Sunday - and at the start here, too, chances were at a premium. It was 20 minutes before Owen relieved the tedium when he skipped clear on the left, but he was unable to lift his attempt over the advancing Shaka Hislop. Almost immediately the West Ham defender Javier Margas, returning after suspension, headed over from Di Canio's corner. Other than that the only incident of note was the substitution of Berger, who sustained an injury following a tackle by Sinclair, by Thompson.

Yet, just when an inconsequential half appeared to be coming to a close, two incidents served to change the sides' fortunes. First, Owen darted into the right-hand side of the Hammers' area and fell under the challenge of Neil Ruddock. The defender immediately turned and protested his innocence and, to his relief, found that Mr Barber had summoned the striker to caution him for diving. Television replays suggested the referee was correct and Owen did not complain.

Almost from the restart West Ham scored, a feat that had looked most unlikely for the previous 47 minutes. Steve Lomas, the captain, delivered an inviting cross from the left and despite Westerveld's agility in denying Di Canio, Sinclair followed up to force the ball home.

The second half belonged to Houllier's men. Owen thought he had equalised when he headed home eight minutes after the break, only to find that Rigobert Song's cross which led to it had drifted out of play. The impressive young Thompson gave Hislop a nervous moment when he unleashed a ferocious drive from the edge of the area following an intuitive ball through from Murphy, only to flash the wrong side of the post.

Liverpool brought on the lanky German Erik Meijer in the latter stages, and then Owen was withdrawn, but Houllier's changes failed to galvanise his team, who might well have gone further behind when Di Canio headed against a post and Wanchope struck his follow-up over the bar. Liverpool's renaissance is back on hold.