It wasn’t pleasant to lost to Chelsea in the League Cup semi-final, but we apparently made a good fight of it. That gave me confidence coming into this match, especially with Sturridge back in the squad and Sakho fit enough to start. Gerrard, Lovren and Balotelli all didn’t make the team, which is understandable…somewhat. I would have preferred Lovren instead of Johnson just in case Sakho can’t last the full match, but the latter is more versatile. Gerrard is always a good option, but it is time for the future. And Balotelli…well, I really want Rodgers to stop throwing him under the bus, and just learn to utilise his talents better. He’s got boatloads of skill, so make use of it.
But West Ham are known for their long-ball tactics and set-piece ability, which is always a worry…
And well, that worry didn’t materialise into anything substantial. Yet. but of course, just like every time we meet Stoke or any one of those long ball merchants, the game is scruffy, full of crosses, and the referee always likes to let the fouls go because ‘it’s just their style of play’. Even Downing got into the act, getting into an altercation with Markovic. It’s ridiculously annoying to see the same fouls from both teams being dealt with differently. And hell, Sterling got wrestled to the ground in the middle of the box and no penalty was given. Ridiculous.
Given the number of times Carroll led with his elbow when heading the ball (and made Can bleed), he should really be sent off by now. But that’s really just complaining to deflect from the fact that West Ham came to defend and fire long balls at him, and it’s working. We carved out plenty of decent chances, but we just couldn’t put it in the back of the net.
There was only an early spell of West Ham pressure (and appropriately fast counters from us) before our dominance on the ball made itself known. Song saved West Ham plenty of times with well-timed tackles and interceptions, and he was pretty dominant in their midfield. But our passing was good, and even with all their players but Valencia and Carroll back to defend, we didn’t struggle particularly badly for chances.
But it appears that Lallana is a little rusty, and Markovic is facing a small dip in form (missing a gilt-edged chance and missing in defence). And with Valencia running the left channel where they both are, combined with Can, it’s a little worrying. But the few moments he had were handled well by Can and Mignolet, so it didn’t result in anything. Carroll too, was handled quite well, although he managed to put a header on target from a corner. Can’t blame the players though, he’s just that good in the air.
Our home form is a little concerning, but given the quality of our players (and possibly Sturridge to come on), we might nick this game. Hopefully, West Ham don’t score from a set-piece…
Well, they did. After surrounding Mignolet with their players, clearing fouling him and rendering it a non-goal.
It’s all that West Ham could do, as we probed and prodded, and finally, Coutinho and Sterling found the break through. Moreno’s ball to Sterling was chested down beautifully for Coutinho to place a fantastically weighted pass for Sterling to nudge the ball past Adrian. It was a well-worked goal, and it showcased the talent that those two have in spades.
But it took some time before the 2nd goal came, despite our dominance and West Ham pinned in their own half for large periods of time. That moment came after Sturridge had come on for Markovic. Almost instantly he had an impact, winning a free kick. But his job is to score goals, and that he did with aplomb as Coutinho passed into his feet and he fired in for a good finish to end the contest.
A striker with great movement and finishing was what we sorely missed, and that moment of quality showed just how much we’ve missed Sturridge. Meanwhile, Carroll got himself injured and yellow carded for trying to tackle Can earlier in the game, studs up. It was fitting, especially since he elbowed Can earlier in the game. The narrative of this match might as well be a tale of two strikers.
Song continued to be very, very good for West Ham, leagues beyond the rest of their team. Given that he’s only on loan from Barcelona, I’m tempted to sign him up just on that performance. As for the team, Mignolet played well apart from one corner, and the rest of our defence coped well with the dual threat of Carroll and Valencia. Can had a pretty bad day, or week to be honest. Stamped on by Costa, elbowed by Carroll, and had a couple of poor headers that Sakho had to clean up. But he’s not a defender by trade, and West Ham play dirty, so it’s a good learning experience for him.
Sakho and Skrtel were both in fine form, with Skrtel swapping over to the right at half time in order to handle Carroll and Valencia, and well at that. Sakho was again a rock in defence, making me wonder just what he has to do for some fans to see the quality he possesses, and not care about his gangly legs and weird postures.
Lucas and Henderson continued to anchor the midfield well, although Lucas looks a little off the pace. That’s excusable, given he played the full 120mins against Chelsea and isn’t exactly a stamina monster. Moreno was a good threat down the left, especially given the complete lack of attacking intent from West Ham down that flank, while Markovic was okay in attack, not so good in defence.
Lallana was definitely off-colour for that first half, but grew into the game a little, especially after switching to wing back when Sturridge came on. I really wished Rodgers would play him back into form; he’s a great, tidy player, but Gerrard was ahead of him for a couple of games.
And of course, Sterling, Coutinho and Sturridge were brilliant. The first two were absolutely hounded by West Ham players, but they almost always managed to make space for themselves. West Ham tried their absolute best, and for a while they succeeded in keeping them relatively quiet (i.e. not scoring). But eventually, their brilliance shone through.
Two brilliant goals, a clean sheet, Sturridge back to fitness, and a team back to winning ways. It’s a good day.