Filed: Wednesday, 30th January 2008
By: Matthew O'Greel
Mark Noble is the toast of the East End tonight after his 94th minute spot kick gave the Hammers their first win over Liverpool since 1999.
Noble stepped up to convert the injury time penalty after Freddie Ljungberg was brought down inside the area in the 93rd minute. Despite the best efforts of Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina the England under 21 midfielder held his nerve to slot home the goal that gives the Hammers a vital three points, leaving them just four points adrift of Liverpool and right back in the hunt for a European spot.
Although the Hammers had controlled the first half Liverpool had seemingly done enough to earn a share of the spoils with a solid second half performance. But Ljungberg, the scourge of Liverpool over the years had other ideas when he raced towards the visitor's goal three minutes into time added on.
That it was a penalty was never in doubt, although 'Pool will pehaps feel aggrieved that they weren't awarded one of their own earlier in the second half when Lucas Neill saw the ball roll down his arm from a Reds corner.
Yet that aside Rafa Benitez's team - who have now earned just four points from their last five matches and remain without a win in 2008 - have nobody but themselves to blame for missing a series of second half chances to break the deadlock and perhaps put the game beyond West Ham's reach.
But for as profligate as Liverpool were in the second period the Hammers were every bit as wasteful in the first 45. For the first time in a number of years the Merseysiders were clearly there for the taking and the Hammers took full advantage of the Reds' recent misfortunes with an encouraging first half performance that had everything but a goal.
The best chances of the half fell to Luis Boa Morte - who could only drill his shot from six yards high into the stands on 22 minutes - and Carlton Cole, who saw his shot on the turn from a similar distance well blocked on the stroke of half time. However the best chance for the home side arrived on 27 minutes via the head of Steve Finnan who inadvertently turned Mark Noble's inswinging free-kick on to his own crossbar with Reina well beaten.
At the other end Liverpool managed just one meaningful effort on goal when former Hammer Yossi Benayoun - who received a chorus of boos every time he touched the ball and when he was substituted late on - saw his delicate lob float over the bar.
It looked as if the Hammers had blown their chance after the break as Liverpool came out a different side to that which had seemed so ordinary before it. As few as four minutes had passed before Harry Kewell spurned a golden opportunity from close range after good work on the flank by Dirk Kuyt.
Yet the Hammers were to spurn two further opportunites before Liverpool's dominance took hold. Freddie Ljungberg misread a George McCartney cross (although a slight deflection by Aurelio may have been more responsible for the Swede's mishit) and Boa Morte once again fluffed a sitter from close range at the far post.
That was enough for Curbishley who replaced the out of form Portu-geezer with Matthew Etherington to a chorus of approval from the home fans. Etherington was joined on the pitch by Dean Ashton, who took over from Lee Bowyer as the Hammers adopted a more attacking 442 formation.
Yet if anything this new system served to hinder the home side's progress as the visitors began to profit from the new space afforded in the centre of the park. Lucas - twice - and Babel has good chances to open the scoring before the other Lucas - West Ham's Mr Neill - was perhaps a touch fortunate to escape censure for the aforementioned penalty appeal (although there was clearly little intent by the Australian ful-back).
As Liverpool pressed for the winner in the closing minutes the Hammers took advantage with the kind of counter attack more often seen away from the Boleyn this season and Ljungberg used all of his professional knowledge to draw Jamie Carragher into a clumsy challenge which left the referee with little choice but to award a spot kick - which Noble drilled into the bottom right hand corner to win the game for the Hammers.
The win gives the Hammers renewed optimism in their push for Europe - especially as Portsmouth lost at Man Utd and Man City could only muster a draw against bottom club Derby. Whilst the Hammers remain in tenth spot with 36 points they are now just a single point behind Portsmouth and two behind Blackburn with a game in hand.
As a footnote, last season it took the Hammers 36 games to accrue a point less than they have already achieved this season - from just 23 games. That, combined with a goal difference of +8 are quite astonishing statistics given the short space of time involved and the fact that Alan Curbishley has been so limited for choice this season due to a series of injuries.
With strugglers Wigan, Birmingham and Fulham to come in the next three games, it seems as if the Hammers can only go from strength to strength.
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by Fred Cutler
06:37AM 31st Jan 2008
''What has happened to Deano? He's gone from undoubtedly the Premiership's best striker in the air to barely challenging for headers, never mind winning any. Curbs' only hope is to play him in the Scholes' hole. When he's up front with CC he watches Carlton win the ball because he knows he can't do the same. Very, very sad, but something must be done or we won't even get back half what we paid for him. When he first arrived from the Championship he was a little like this, but gradually rounded into form. He'll only get back there, if ever, by playing. That's a hell of a gamble for Curbs who should worry about Ashton putting a wet blanket on a team workrate that's got us where we are now.''
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