West Ham United 1 Liverpool 0: Noble on the spot to punish Liverpool

Liverpool's season began to unravel last night as a penalty in the third minute of injury time from Mark Noble inflicted a defeat which distanced them yet further from the sharp end of the Premier League and a position which is not so much desirable as essential in the wake of their recent £350m refinancing by the club's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Having seen his team slip to seventh, 17 points behind the leaders Manchester United, Liverpool's manager, Rafa Benitez, fielded questions with the brooding air of a man who was about to explode.

He remained cool enough to insist that the owners would give him time to turn the side's form around, and that a Champions League place at least was still within range. But he tacitly admitted that the title was now out of reach, as he responded: "I think I will need to think about our next match, against Sunderland. That's more realistic."

Given that Liverpool have now not won since Boxing Day, Sunderland might even be starting to fancy their chances a bit. Certainly, if they can pursue Benitez's men with the indefatigability the West Ham demonstrated here, they will give themselves a chance.

Asked to confirm that he had recovered his equilibrium following the breakdown in communication with the club's owners earlier in the season – and the subsequent revelation that they had sounded out Jürgen Klinsmann for the manager's position at Liverpool – Benitez replied dutifully, but unconvincingly. "Everything is behind us," he said. "We will start thinking now about how to win games."

Benitez insisted that his team had not deserved to lose, referring with a touch of grim humour to the claim for handball in the area by Lucas Neill after Sammy Hyypia had headed on Steven Gerrard's corner that the referee Alan Wiley waved away in the 78th minute. Asked what he thought about the penalty, Benitez replied with the ghost of a smile: "Both were penalties."

His confidence about regaining a place in the top four, he maintained, was based on a simple reason. "Because we will improve," he said. "Because we can improve." After four successive draws and a defeat, Liverpool desperately need to improve.

The decisive moment occurred as West Ham engineered a final breakaway that was masterminded by their substitute Matt Etherington. His ball in to Ljungberg prompted Jamie Carragher into a rash challenge that saw the referee point to the spot, and the 20-year-old Noble personified his team's approach on the night by electing himself as penalty taker, grabbing hold of the ball and then driving it low past Jose Reina's left hand to confirm a victory that may yet transform his side's season.

Benitez had spoken beforehand of the "silly mistakes" that had undermined his side's progress this season. Here, from their captain, was another.

West Ham's manager, Alan Curbishley, admitted afterwards that his immediate concern after the goal was that Noble, who is on four bookings, might earn a fifth and a suspension for over-celebrating. "But then, if you beat Liverpool in the last minute, you're entitled to celebrate," Curbishley added with a grin.

His team's task might have been more straightforward had they converted two early chances against a visiting side to which Benitez had made eight changes following the weekend FA Cup win over Havant & Waterlooville.

After 21 minutes, George McCartney's long throw-in from the left created confusion in the Liverpool defence which allowed Luis Boa Morte to shoot from 10 yards, but the midfielder hooked his effort over the bar.

As their supporters found their voice, the home side began to pick up momentum, and five minutes later they came even closer to forcing an opening goal when a free-kick driven in from the left by Noble deflected off the head of Steve Finnan and cannoned away off the woodwork.

But Noble's flourish eventually earned the points which lifted West Ham to within shouting distance of a Uefa Cup qualifying position. "The run-in starts now," said Curbishley, who has long-term injured Craig Bellamy, Bobby Zamora and Julien Faubert back in training. "Let's see what we can do."

For West Ham, optimism. For Liverpool, a growing sense of dire necessity.

Goal: Noble (90) 1-0.

West Ham United (4-5-1): Green; Neill, Ferdinand, Upson, McCartney; Ljungberg, Noble, Mullins, Bowyer (Ashton, 58), Boa Morte (Etherington, 59); Cole (Spector, 81). Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Solano.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurelio; Benayoun (Babel, 72), Gerrard, Alonso, Kewell (Lucas, 61); Torres, Kuyt. Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Crouch, Skrtel.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Liverpool Aurelio, Torres, Alonso.

Man of the match: Upson.

Attendance: 34, 977.

News
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Pandas may be more sociable than previously thought
news
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Arts and Entertainment
Written protest: Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, has sent an open letter to the Culture Secretary
books
Sport
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss