When West Ham last travelled to Anfield seeking to preserve their top flight status in Springtime, they lost 5-1 and were relegated, but those who fear parallels for Gianfranco Zola should know that result belonged to a different world for both sides. The Liverpool team populated by Rush, Barnes and Aldridge that day had just beaten Everton to clinch the FA Cup. It was 1989 and the win sent them into the title play-off which Arsenal and Michael Thomas so famously won.
More than two decades on, Liverpool have reached such realms of despondency about the events of the last eight months that the domestic campaign seems doomed to vanish without a whisper. Ten consecutive games unbeaten at Anfield there might have been but proof that the club's fans have written off Champions League football, even if the manager has not, was audible in the muted rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" and visible in an attendance figure which is the lowest since December 2004, when Rafael Benitez's reign was just beginning.
Only this summer will tell whether the statistics prove cyclical and Benitez is on his way. It's typical of the chaos Liverpool currently seems to cause all those who touch the club that the new non-executive chairman, Martin Broughton, observing his first game here since his appointment, is also helping British Airways, which he chairs, through the no-flight crisis. "We know with his job at BA he is very busy now," Benitez said of Broughton, whom he hopes to meet today.
Benitez's problems are nothing compared with those of Zola, though. The West Ham manager insisted last night that "I don't have to question myself about the way have played" and revealed that the look he had just seen in his players' eyes in the dressing room told him they would react to this defeat. "My objective going in there was to make sure they are going to react straight away and I saw that they are. I didn't need to say anything," he declared. "They said it, and that's the most important thing."
But Iain Dowie's Hull, three points behind West Ham with a game in hand, will have taken great heart from the parlous state of Zola's defence here, with Matthew Upson's performance surely a source of anxiety to the watching Franco Baldini. Taken individually, there was an element of luck about both of the goals which came from free-kicks slung across West Ham's area. But there was no coincidence about the needlessly conceded set plays and the failure to deal with any of them.
The first free kick, which spun low and hard from Steven Gerrard's right boot beyond Jonathan Spector, allowed Yossi Benayoun to brush it in off his chest, well beyond Robert Green's despairing dive. The second – Liverpool's third goal – was sent with a similar trajectory and ricocheted with almost comic effect from the shin of Sotirios Kyrgiakos, against the inside base of a post, back onto Robert Green's left leg and into the net. Other comic bad moments – tragic if you happen to be Zola – included one when Kyrgiakos, found himself unhindered and staring into West Ham's goal – yet conspired to head the ball down into the turf and watch it loop six feet over the bar. It was perhaps for the best that Fernando Torres was absent: the kind of harm he would have inflicted on Upson would have created damage to be wished on no Englishman at this moment.
David Ngog, the young Frenchman asked to fill Torres' boots again, delivered the night's stand-out moment after the steadily improving Maxi Rodriguez delivered a sharp cross of his own which the 21-year-old met and deposited into the net, with Upson several seconds too late with his challenge once again. A Torres Ngog will never be, but his movement opens up space for others in front of him and his eight goals this season are a creditable return. "He has very good movement," his manager said. "He knows he has played a lot of games this year and he has to work hard. When he has time he does individual work, trying to improve."
There is little to add about West Ham's contribution, the only shot to challenge Pepe Reina being Carlton Cole's effort from a narrow angle in the first half. Cole, another of those Baldini will have left with no feelings of great comfort about, was removed to protect an injured knee. Nothing else created in the game makes the home match with Wigan this weekend one of grave significance. "When you are in a situation like this you always play with an edge. In our position, it is normal to enter a game like this and play it in the wrong way," Zola declared, rather unconvincingly.
Despite the nature of the display, the West Ham fans' noise prevailed to the last – through the hokey cokey and Bubbles to "We're going to win 4-3" – to keep despair at bay. Benitez meanwhile had the luxury of removing Gerrard in place of Mascherano 20 minutes from time to prepare the way for the long journey to Madrid, probably via Stansted, which begins this lunchtime. West Ham have, after all, been travelling here more in hope than expectation for decades. Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters scored the last time they won, in September 1963, which made it 37 top-flight games without defeat by Liverpool against the Hammers – the third longest run by a home team in Europe.
By contrast, Ngog's muted celebrations – and the crowd's – suggested that he and they both knew this was not Premier League quality for real. For them, the Europa League livery is to become part of the furniture for another season at least. "We can see you sneaking out" rang out the West Ham taunts as the numbers thinned out yet more – demonstration if it were really needed that this was a night of no real winners.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1) Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Agger; Lucas, Gerrard (Mascherano, 71); Rodriguez, Kuyt, Benayoun (Degen, 77); Ngog (Babel, 81). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri, Aquilani, El Zhar, Ayala.
West Ham United (4-4-2) Green; Faubert, Da Costa, Upson, Spector (Daprela, 80); Stanislas (Franco, h-t), Kovac, Noble, Behrami; Cole ( McCarthy, 72), Ilan. Subs not used Gabbidon, Mido, Kurucz, Diamanti.
Referee P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Man of the match Benayoun.