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.