No doubt Harry Redknapp, the West Ham manager, had been entreating his team to believe the reports that Liverpool's 5-1 win over Chelsea the previous weekend, followed by their rescuing of some Premiership prestige in Europe against MyPa-47, flattered them. In neither match had the League leaders truly risen to their full height, but that was far from suggesting they would be coming to town in anything but their Sunday best.
With Patrik Berger increasingly looking like Anfield's answer to Manchester United's Eric Cantona, West Ham knew that on a blustery afternoon yesterday they could be as vulnerable as an autumn leaf. In the event, they were pure oak. Yet being blown off course as early as the second minute clearly planted the suspicion that Redknapp's attempt at encouragement was seriously misplaced. Even without Robbie Fowler and relying primarily on Stan Collymore in attack, Liverpool's ability to keep possession before sending forward reinforcements at pace gave the initial impression that West Ham were about to be overwhelmed.
When Jason McAteer poked a hole in the West Ham defence so early on, his pass forward found Collymore in free space. The hole became a chasm and Collymore simply ran on and comfortably beat Ludek Miklosko. Had Phil Babb not been called off-side when he drove in what appeared to be a second early goal, the game could have degenerated into no contest. Far from it. Collymore was soon limping off and West Ham striding forward with realistic hope.
Berger was left alone at Liverpool's front and suddenly West Ham were confident and level. Pressure from Tim Breacker at set-pieces had already begun to trouble the Liverpool defence and it was from a corner by Michael Hughes that Slaven Bilic headed in the equaliser. That changed everything.
Tony Cottee had David James diving to divert a huge 25-yard shot, Julian Dicks volleyed on to the bar and Liverpool's control in midfield dwindled. They continually lost out in the air. Not only that, when Berger got the sort of chances that recently he had consumed so heartily, here he was seen aimlessly side-footing shots that offered no danger.
By restraining John Barnes and benefiting from Liverpool not having a recognised striker, West Ham were able to maintain their progress. Liverpool moved Steve McManaman into a central attacking role, supported by Jamie Redknapp, but it was only by composing themselves overall did they recover the mastery shown early in the game. A delightful angled pass diagonally across the edge of the penalty area by McManaman eight minutes into the second half, and Michael Thomas moved in on the far side to beat Miklosko with a fine shot inside the post.
Introducing Hugo Porfirio, the Portuguese international, proved an instant success for West Ham, since it was obvious that his close control and creativity were something special. His first three touches all offered goalscoring chances, but by then the keys to this absorbingly intense game had become the attacking runs of McAteer and the unceasing industry of Hughes. Yet neither could alter the situation which was, quite simply, that again Liverpool played well beneath their peak but finished on top.
Redknapp knew West Ham had wasted an opportunity to take advantage of a Liverpool side without the injured Mark Wright, Fowler and then Collymore, who will have an X-ray on his injured knee today.
"We came back and had them under the whip for 35 minutes," Redknapp said. "We scored a good goal and if you had said at half time that I could have the draw I would not have taken it.
"But then we got caught again for the second goal and couldn't come back from that. It is very disappointing, because both goals were so sloppy."
Roy Evans, his Liverpool counterpart, had to admit that he was wrong not to bring on the promising striker, Lee Jones, earlier. "We had nobody to hold it up at the front for us after Stan went off and we let West Ham back into the game. A slapped wrist for me. I confused things but well done, lads, for battling - and well done West Ham." Exactly...
Goals: Collymore (3) 0-1; Bilic (15) 1-1; Thomas (55) 1-2.
West Ham United (3-5-2): Miklosko; Rieper, Bilic, Dicks; Breacker, Bishop, Moncur, Hughes, Bowen (Porfirio, 58); Cottee (Dumitrescu, 76), Dowie. Substitutes not used: Rowland, Lampard, Mautone (gk).
Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Scales (Ruddock, 68), Babb, Matteo; McAteer, Thomas, McManaman, Barnes, Bjornebye; Collymore (Redknapp, 19), Berger (L Jones 82). Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), Kennedy.
Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).
Bookings: West Ham: Bilic. Liverpool: McAteer.
Man of the match: Hughes. Attendance: 25,064.Reuse content