Benitez forced to watch as title slips beyond Liverpool

West Ham United 0 Liverpool 3
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The Independent Online

Given his invariably animated demeanour on the touchline, it is to be assumed that Rafa Benitez is not a natural spectator. Yet that is the role he is being forced to assume this week for four and a half hours as Manchester United seek the points that will deprive Benitez's club of another League title.

Yesterday afternoon was the first, disappointing installment and all who love Liverpool must go through it again twice more before the players can ease their frustration at West Bromwich Albion on Sunday; by which time United's players could have the medals hanging round their necks.

Benitez has to make defiant noises. He is hoping that there may be a surprise on Wednesday at Wigan, though nothing in the latter's recent form suggests it. What seems far more likely, and has done for some time, is that he will have to make do with justified satisfaction at the best of his five League campaigns. It will almost certainly involve finishing runners-up for the first time since 2002, with the club's highest points total since 1988, and possibly as few as two defeats.

There was never any danger of suffering a third at Upton Park from the moment that Steven Gerrard made a classic run through the parting waters of the West Ham defence to open the scoring after 76 seconds. Liverpool's 4-2-3-1 formation now fits them as comfortably as a favourite old pair of shoes, even when, as on Saturday, Xabi Alonso is unavailable to sit snugly alongside Javier Mascherano as the holding midfielder. After Gerrard found the target again before half-time, Ryan Babel's late goal meant they have set a club record by scoring three or more times in six successive games.

"I'm really pleased because we are scoring goals as well as keeping clean sheets," Benitez said. "That means we have the balance. It's good for this year and the future and means we're going in the right direction. We have better players with a winning mentality and they're still improving.

"We will keep training normally and be ready if United make a mistake. It will be difficult, but it's the Premier League and all teams can win."

West Ham cannot, at least against the big four. Despite being in serious contention for a European place, they have now lost at home to United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal without scoring a goal. Carlton Cole and Dean Ashton may briefly have been in promising tandem at the start of the season for successive 4-1 victories under Alan Curbishley, but the continental pairing of David di Michele just behind Diego Tristan holds no such menace.

Di Michele embarrassed himself by attempting to win a penalty for falling over his own feet and was rightly booked by referee Alan Wiley, whose only mistake was not giving a free-kick for a foul by the otherwise immaculate Mascherano before Liverpool broke to win a penalty for their second goal. How successive West Ham managers failed to integrate Mascherano into a side threatened by relegation is one of the great football mysteries.

"The difference between teams like us and Liverpool is still big but we're getting there," Curbishley's successor Gianfranco Zola said. "When we'll get there I don't know but I'm sure we're going to. Trust me." The financially troubled owner-chairman Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson obviously does, awarding Zola and his assistant Steve Clarke new four-year contracts. Unfortunately they now need some money to spend, far more than the insatiable Benitez.

West Ham (4-4-1-1): Green; Neill, Tomkins, Upson, Ilunga; Boa Morte (Payne, 80), Noble, Kovac, Stanislas (Collison, 59); Di Michele (Sears, 70), Tristan. Substitutes not used: Lastuvka (gk), Lopez, Savio, Spector.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio (Insua, 54); Mascherano, Lucas; Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun (Dossena, 82); Torres (Babel, 72). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Hyypia, Ngog, Degen.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: West Ham Boa Morte, Kovac, Di Michele; Liverpool Aurelio, Mascherano.

Man of the match: Mascherano

Attendance: 34,951.

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