Liverpool 2 West Ham United 1: Swagger of Agger as Reds blow hot and cold

Crouch the clinical puts gloss on unconvincing display
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The Independent Online

How good are Liverpool? Only eight days ago they were being lauded as alternative champions to Chelsea, yet they have started the season with as much a stutter as a swagger. Yesterday they beat West Ham United in a repeat of last May's FA Cup final, but as barometers for their form that is about as reliable as a politician's promise.

Through good and bad, Liverpool nail the Hammers at home, it is 43 years since the Londoners won at Anfield. Yet West Ham pushed Liverpool beyond a zone you could describe as comfortable and could easily have slipped away from Merseyside with a point, Lee Bowyer hitting the post with nine minutes to go.

That was the case for the prosecution. For the defence, Rafael Benitez pointed to opportunities that could have doubled his team's tally and it is difficult to be to hard on a side who had the character to overcome going behind. Bobby Zamora put West Ham ahead courtesy of a Jose Reina error, but Liverpool prevailed thanks to a thunderous strike from Daniel Agger and a rare piece of clinical finishing from Peter Crouch.

It was, not for the first time, a mixture of the sublime and the untidy, by Benitez's team. "We created a lot of chances," the Liverpool manager said, "but when you play good teams you need to kill the game by getting the third goal. The last 15 minutes we looked nervous." It was a theme taken up by his opposite number, Alan Pardew. "We went on the back foot for a spell and had a problem dealing with Liverpool's movement," he said. "In the second half it was an even encounter again. We created a fantastic chance right at the end but unfortunately for Lee it went the wrong side of the post."

Those looking for fault lines in Liverpool's ambitions this season had much to examine after last Saturday when a team bereft of many of their more creative players only drew at Sheffield United. Benitez's natural caution was blamed on that occasion but you could not fault the Liverpool manager's boldness yesterday as his line-up included two wingers and Steven Gerrard in central midfield.

They started like a team willing to gamble, and within the first 10 minutes Luis Garcia, Crouch and Fabio Aurelio thumped shots towards the West Ham goal, the last of which, a free-kick, had to be cleared off the line by Paul Konchesky. A goal looked likely any moment, and it arrived after 11 minutes, although the fact that it was the visitors who opened the scoring came with the shock of a win on the National Lottery.

Zamora certainly would have considered himself the recipient of a jackpot when he crossed to the near post from the right in the hope of finding a colleague's head, only to locate the net instead. There was a touch, but it was Reina who supplied it, the Liverpool goalkeeper losing his bearings to tip the ball into the corner of his own net.

There followed a 25-minute spell where Liverpool went through a grisly repertoire that included most errors open to a footballer, but the fact they had so much possession to squander gave them reason for hope and the cavalry arrived in the altogether unlikely shape of Agger. The Danish centre-back received the ball in midfield after 42 minutes, advanced like a man who did not looked entirely comfortable with it and then confounded everyone by firing a into the top corner with his left foot. It was a strike worthy of a Gerrard rather than a stand-in for Jamie Carragher.

If that goal was a surprise then the next, three minutes later, also had its eyebrow-rising elements. Garcia and Crouch had been among the principal culprits during Liverpool's spell of errors, but the former took off from the right wing as if he was at the peak of his powers and then slipped a clever short pass for his beanpole team-mate. Crouch, too, shed his Bambi-on-ice impression, took the ball round Roy Carroll and passed into the empty net.

That proved to be the almost the last touch for Crouch who was substituted after 52 minutes to allow Dirk Kuyt his first appearance since his £9m move from Feyenoord. The Dutch striker almost got a goal with his first touch, a turn and shot from 30 yards that swerved just wide, and his partnership with Craig Bellamy appears ripe with promise. But rather than Liverpool it was West Ham who came closest to adding to the scoring.

John Paintsil crossed from the right, the Liverpool defence was distracted by Yossi Benayoun's run to the near post, and when it landed at Bowyer's feet at the back, the home team were fortunate his shot lacked conviction and it bobbled against the post and bounced clear.

"The most important thing is that we won," a relieved Benitez said. But then they nearly always do against West Ham at Anfield.