Hammers fans were so outraged with their team’s performance against Hull that they booed the players off the pitch even after victory, a stark contrast to the mood on the Kop
By Harry Sherlock
As Brendan Rodgers prepares his Liverpool side to travel to West Ham, he would be forgiven for expecting a horse-drawn carriage to carry his charges to east London.
For, if Jose Mourinho is to be believed, the Reds will be stepping back into the 19th century when they reach Upton Park. The Portuguese, famed for his barbs and quips, laid into the apparent medieval football served up by Sam Allardyce after his Chelsea side failed to defeat the Hammers at Stamford Bridge in January.
Indeed, Chelsea mustered a staggering 39 shots during that game, while West Ham managed just one. But Liverpool pose a quite different challenge, and Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge perhaps offer a little more threat than the misfiring trio of Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba.
In fact, Liverpool offer an altogether more deadly presence than the Blues. Rodgers – schooled at Stamford Bridge – has his team playing electric, flowing football.
The Kop is swimming in goals – Liverpool have scored 88 so far this season – and players so often regarded as also-rans have stepped up to the plate in what could be a title-winning campaign. Jordan Henderson, especially, looks a revitalised player and would more than warrant a spot in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad this summer.
The goals, so many of them, have been spread out. Suarez and Sturridge have 49 between them, but Steven Gerrard has 11, and Raheem Sterling and Martin Skrtel have six apiece.
With every player capable of hitting the back of the net, West Ham will still need to do more than they did against Chelsea if they are to keep Rodgers’s men quiet. During the Stamford Bridge onslaught they sat back and rode their luck, with goalkeeper Adrian making a number of superb saves. If they give Liverpool chances, however, the Reds will score.
It seems certain that West Ham will have to score themselves. With Andy Carroll up front they have a man capable of beating any goalkeeper, but Allardyce will have to refine his gameplan if he is to claim another valuable scalp.
Liverpool, of course, know all about Carroll, having splashed out £35 million to acquire him from Newcastle. His time on Merseyside was nothing short of a disaster; he scored just six league goals in 44 appearances. Then-manager Kenny Dalglish’s strategy was, for a time, built to service Carroll, with copious crosses directed into the box in a bid to get the England striker firing. When Rodgers swept in he resolved to clear the decks, and immediately disposed of the star, first on loan to West Ham, then for a £15m fee.
Allardyce has always favoured a long ball game and has supplemented Carroll with the lurking threat of captain Kevin Nolan. Both goals scored by Carroll this season, following his return from injury, have been headers, while he has won 52% of his one-on-one duels. Despite accusations that he is merely a flat-track bully he has scored goals at the highest level – indeed he terrorised defenders at Euro 2012 – and will fancy his chances of doing the same against his former club.
But in recent weeks Allardyce has seen his gameplan work against him. A number of fans are calling for his head having grown tired of the dour football on show in east London.
He appears set to stay for another season and that will be of little comfort to the home faithful. The West Ham fans have always favoured style over substance – they would rather lose a nine-goal thriller than win 1-0 – yet they appear to be stuck with the man who would be repulsed at the very thought.
It could hardly be more different on Merseyside. The Liverpool supporters have found a new God, with fans chanting Rodgers’s name at every available opportunity.
After a disappointing 2012-13 season which saw the Reds finish seventh, he has found a winning recipe. He is, of course, indebted to the staggering finishing abilities of Suarez and Sturridge but that works both ways; his tactics have brought the best out of the mercurial pair, and they are tearing defences apart at will.
With West Ham vulnerable – they have not kept a clean sheet since February 11 – it would take a brave man to bet against either of them scoring.
Allardyce’s way of playing is set in stone; Carroll up front, Nolan in behind and a packed midfield ordered to suffocate Liverpool’s creative players in a bid to cut off the supply to the SAS at source. With the ball, it is even simpler; find Carroll.
It may appear old-fashioned – Mourinho would call it ancient – but it has worked this season. West Ham are safe in 11th and face little to no danger of being sucked back into the relegation dogfight.
Yet a team of Liverpool’s quality will relish the challenge of tearing the Irons apart. There has been discontent on the terraces of the Boleyn ground this season and with Rodgers’s big Red machine showing no signs of slowing down, the misery may just last a little while longer yet.