Liverpool reclaim summit but fall short of peak form

Liverpool 0 West Ham United 0
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Who could have forseen it last summer? Liverpool trooping off Anfield to a muffled chorus of boos on the December night they put a point’s daylight between themselves and the second best team in the land.

That is how it happened last night because Anfield, a ground which has seen its share of Championship material in its time, knows when a league table flatters. It might show that Liverpool are the best side in the land today, but having failed to muster a goal at home against Stoke, Fulham and West Ham, or build a three point gap at the top, they are foundering on a goalscoring impasse. Minus Fernando Torres and the Robbie Keane that Rafael Benitez imagined he was signing, they do not look like overcoming it terribly soon.

Benitez was as categorical as he could be about suggestions that Michael Owen might be riding home in January to help out – “I can guarantee we are not going for Michael Owen – clearly,” he said. He also thought his side’s fans would feel much better in the morning. “The crowd can be disappointed after a draw at home but surely if they go home tomorrow they will see [from] the newspapers we are top of the league.” But Liverpool have 12 goals fewer than Chelsea, six fewer than Manchester United, and look inexplicably tremulous at home.

It was not just about them. Gianfranco Zola has instilled some defensive obduracy in his own side and saw the rewards among giant performances from Robert Green and Matthew Upson. It was, Zola said, the best performance his side had offered since his arrival in east London, and Green is worthy of most acclaim. The 28-year-old has never managed to build on his single substitute’s appearance in an England jersey of three years ago, but he topped a string of superb stops by pushing over the thunderous second-half shot which Yossi Benayoun unleashed in the penalty area, having latched onto a ball cleared his way by West Ham defender James Collins.

There was also a close range save from one of Sami Hyypia’s half-dozen efforts – Liverpool’s reliance on the set-piece an illustration of how they are labouring to score from open play – and yet another from Dirk Kuyt at point blank range in the dying minutes. “I told him is if he performs like this he is going to be in [England’s plans] because [Fabio] Capello knows what he has done,” Zola said. “Robert knows that he has to play like that every week.”

A third successive clean sheet for West Ham was part of a game plan to “make it as frustrating as we could for them and get behind the ball,” as Craig Bellamy put it. It was a night when Liverpool took up other people’s causes – the actress Sue Johnston was on the pitch before the kick off encouraging fans to support the case of Michael Shields, still in a British jail for an alleged attack on a barman in Bulgaria on the night of Liverpool’s Champions League triumph three and a half years ago – but their own attempts to break through were a thoroughly lost cause.

Though there were prospects in he first half of the waves of red pressure actually delivering something – Hayden Mullins cleared off the line after Albert Riera latched onto a ball Green punched into his path and Collins did likewise after another Hyypia header – they faded as the game wore on. Steven Gerrard led the cavalry throughout, but Robbie Keane was conspicuous by his absence. The ball which he gathered and fired wide of Green’s right hand post on 54 minutes was the first meaningful attempt on goal by a player who looked to the heavens and avoided eye contact with his manager as he departed the field early for the 14th time this season. “All the players want to play 90 minutes and if you are going to change things he isn’t going to play,” Benitez said flatly. “Clearly he would like to play.”

Zola’s side could actually have pinched all the points as Liverpool drove forward at the death. Twice, Carlton Cole was wrongly called offside and on one of those occasions he forced a fingertip save from Pepe Reina. “There was a moment in the game when we were starting to think about it winning it,” Zola said with a grin.

Benitez, meanwhile, found himself discussing how he might lift his players and there seemed little comfort to take from the presence in the crowd of proprietor George Gillett, who has not pushed the Spaniard’s contract talks any further and who, US reports suggest, is struggling to refinance $75m of personal debt.

“We were waiting for a communication and we didn’t have the communication so maybe we will have to finish the conversations,” Benitez said of Gillett. That is a lot of black clouds for a team leading the way.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Hyypia, Carragher, Dossena; Benayoun, Alonso, Gerrard, Riera (Babel, 77); Kuyt, Keane (Ngog, 65). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Agger, Mascherano, Leiva Lucas, Insua.

West Ham (4-4-2): Green; Neill, Collins, Upson, Ilunga; Faubert (Boa Morte, 85), Parker, Mullins, Behrami; Bellamy, Cole. Substitutes not used: Noble, Lastuvka (gk), Tristan, Davenport, Collison, Di Michele.

Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).

Man of the match: Green.