They were clearing away at Aintree as, like a man going back to his wife after a one-night stand, Merseyside returned to its chief sporting love.
This, however, lacked the romance and uncertainty of a 66-1 outsider owned by Britain’s most famous and cantankerous show-jumper charging across the Melling Road, though you would have got relatively long odds on West Ham United holding Liverpool to a draw.
It is 50 years since they last won at Anfield and, although they were captained by Bobby Moore that day in September 1963, West Ham are not known in these parts for their defensive solidity.
Yet they produced defending that Moore would have recognised. Few have handled the threat of Luis Suarez better than the hulking figure of James Collins for whom this was an afternoon of grit and skill.
But for the thickness of Lucas Leiva’s thigh, Sam Allardyce’s tactics of soaking up Liverpool’s pressure would have paid the highest possible dividend. Jack Collison met Gary O’Neil’s corner with a header that struck the Brazilian as he stood by the post. Allardyce threw his hands to a head that now bore four stitches after a collision with a marble worktop in his kitchen. The hoodoo had not been broken but he would go home happy.
“We should have won it,” the West Ham manager said. “We had the better chances and I know they had more possession but we didn’t succumb to their pressure. This is a very big and well-deserved point for us because some of the teams below us have been picking up back-to-back wins. Most fans would have turned up here expecting Liverpool to walk away with this.
“Up to our game at Stoke, which we won 1-0, our away form has been dreadful and you can see why – we don’t score. The defence has earned us a point but the finishing side needs to get an awful lot better.”
Brendan Rodgers might have felt the same. Liverpool’s dominance was relentless. But one by one the opportunities flashed by. James Tomkins cleared off the line after a move involving Liverpool’s three most creative players – Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Steven Gerrard – and finished by the Liverpool captain.
Daniel Sturridge deflected Jordan Henderson’s shot into the net but was, to Rodgers’ surprise, ruled to have been standing in an offside position. Both Gerrard and Suarez sent balls hissing across the face of Jussi Jaaskelainen’s goal but Allardyce argued that his keeper was not required to produce heroics.
“It was a game where you had to score early on to open it up or you needed that wee bit of luck,” Rodgers said. “Our form at Anfield is getting better all the time but we need to keep moving forward, get to the summer, and then make a better start to next season than we did to this one.”
West Ham’s chances were few but good. Mohamed Diame slalomed past two defenders, rode a challenge and sent his shot screeching into the Kop, who applauded. Had Carlton Cole scored after Lucas had sloppily lost possession on the edge of the box, their emotions would have been less generous but Daniel Agger’s block was the equal of anything produced by Collins, Tomkins or Guy Demel.
At the start, it felt like a game of county cricket. There were some interesting touches, the sun was shining but nothing seemed to matter very much. By the end Anfield was eaten up with frustration. They were angry at West Ham’s time-wasting even when it involved a genuinely injured player in Tomkins, who was helped off the pitch with cramp.
At the whistle, there was an acceptance that Liverpool will probably not make the fifth place required to guarantee European football and, had Tottenham not scored a late equaliser against Everton, that prospect might have disappeared completely.
The season is dribbling away much as it did in Kenny Dalglish’s last few matches, although Dalglish had won them the League Cup and there was the prospect of an FA Cup final to come. Rodgers said only that Liverpool would try to finish as high as they could. When he was young that used to be first.
Bookings: West Ham O’Brien.
Man of the match Collins.
Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Liverpool 65%. West Ham 35%.
Attempts on target: Liverpool 8. West Ham 0.
Referee A Taylor (Greater Manchester).
Attendance 45,007.Reuse content