Skrtel Carragher Wilson
Kelly Lucas Gerrard Johnson
C Cole 90+1'
Well, for the fifth-straight meeting between Liverpool and West Ham, the winning team's scored three goals. Pity that for the first time, it wasn't Liverpool.
It was back to the bad old days away from Anfield. Wholly insipid; out-fought and deservedly beaten by a relegation candidate on their ground.
Liverpool started decently, despite a much-improved West Ham. Both sides had early chances: Hitzlsperger's jaw-dropping volley from distance in the 3rd was straight down Reina's throat while Meireles nearly converted a dangerous ball over the top, heading wide two minutes later. The game was finely balanced until Parker's brilliant goal knocked Liverpool completely off-kilter. The midfielder played a smart one-two with Hitzlsperger, audaciously toe-poking past Reina into the far corner.
Following that setback, Liverpool's only chance of the half was Kuyt into side netting on counter in the 24th. Heads dropped, and West Ham bossed possession through Parker, Noble, and Hitzlsperger. Kelly's injury less than five minutes before the break made matters immeasurably worse; charging down the touchline, the full-back fell after no contract clutching his hamstring. I'm completely irrational right now, but can't see anything other than an extended stint on the sidelines for him. Cole came on in his stead, converting Liverpool to a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2.
And then Ba scored seconds before the interval, a comedy of an errors and an absolute hammer blow. An out-of-position Ba beat Wilson to Green's hopeful punt before Carragher was slow to close down right-winger O'Neil with Wilson caught up-field, giving time to cross. Most unforgivable was Skrtel's "defense": slow to turn after initially facing goal, ostensibly "marking" Piquionne, slow to react to Ba's run, allowing a free header. Admittedly, he wasn't helped by Wilson unable to track West Ham's recent acquisition, but the Slovakian still takes the majority of blame. It wouldn't be for the last time today.
The injury woes continued in the second half, with two players going off in consecutive matches. The second casualty today was Meireles, unable to run off an earlier knock. He was replaced by Ngog and Liverpool became a more orthodox 4-4-2, with Lucas and Gerrard in central midfield, Kuyt and Cole on the flanks, and Suarez lurking around the taller Ngog up front.
Aside from two excellent saves by Robert Green (I know!), the second half was all sound and fury signifying nothing until Johnson's consolation in the 84th. First, Suarez deliciously turned Tompkins – a sign of consolations to come – only to see Green react with a diving fingertip save in the 61st. Then, Gerrard's run onto Ngog's flick-on and blast required the keeper to tip just over the bar in the 72nd. Other than those isolated incidents, West Ham were reasonably happy to concede possession and pack the area, ensuring little space for Liverpool to dance into.
Johnson inspired false hope seven minutes from time after Suarez again displayed his class. Wilson did well to keep Ngog's flick-on in play, setting up the Uruguayan. He torched both Parker and Tompkins with a nanosecond turn, passing across the face of goal for a Johnson tap-in. But that hope was crushed a minute into added time when Cole completely disrobed the bumbling Skrtel, holding off with ease and leaving him on sprawled the floor, before striding forward to beat Reina at his near post. A fitting capstone.
I'm struggling to think of any positives following this performance. After anonymity for long stretches, Suarez set up Johnson's tap-in brilliantly, while Kelly continued to impress before his unfortunate injury. Lucas was consistent as the metronome in the middle, if nowhere near as effective in defensive duties. That's about it. Other, Gerrard was again invisible in central midfield (shadowed by the talismanic Parker), the defense was woeful for the first time when playing three at the back, Skrtel's regressing to the point of devolution, and Wilson looked every bit a 19-year-old. Couple those disappointing performances with two additional injuries when the squad's already paper-thin, and you have a really really really bad day at the office.
Liverpool's reaction to this set-back will define the rest of the season. The team has a week off before hosting league-leaders United. Ideally, Agger will return – we still don't know the extent of his injury – Kelly and Meireles' knocks won't be that bad, and Carroll will be in contention. It's nice to dream sometimes.
This was about as bad as it gets. So much for an eight-game unbeaten streak and only conceding once in the last seven. It goes without saying that this was Liverpool's worst performance under Dalglish. The tactics and set-up are still vastly better than the previous manager, but this is a result straight out of the first half of the season. Liverpool need to prove that the recent heartening spell was concrete improvement and not just a morale boost from the new regime.