Agony for gallant West Ham as they lose to Liverpool in five-goal thriller
PUBLISHED: 22:29 24 February 2020 | UPDATED: 22:29 24 February 2020
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The Hammers led champions-elect Liverpool in the second half, but could not cling on
Liverpool 3 West Ham United 2
West Ham gave Jürgen Klopp's Invincibles a fright with an enthusiastic, encouraging and energetic performance, but despite taking a second-half lead at Anfield they still left Merseyside empty-handed.
After Issa Diop and substitute Pablo Fornals had wiped out Georginio Wijnaldum's early opener with goals either side of the break, the hitherto unbeaten Reds were wobbling, but Mohamed Salah levelled following a calamitous 'keeping error, before Sadio Mané agonisingly condemned David Moyes men to defeat with just nine minutes remaining.
A record-equalling 18th successive league victory leaves Liverpool - now unbeaten in 44 league matches - needing just four more wins to secure the title while the Hammers still find themselves in the dreaded drop-zone with just 11 matches remaining.
Following last Wednesday's two-goal defeat at second-placed Manchester City, West Ham made two changes as they now found themselves up against the runaway Premier League leaders just five days on.
Ryan Fredericks (shoulder) was replaced by Jeremy Ngakia, while fit-again Felipe Anderson made a welcome return as Arthur Masuaku made way for the Brazilian, who shared attacking duties with Michail Antonio as £20million deadline-day signing Jarrod Bowen again found himself on the bench.
The 1,800 or so Hammers fans, who had made the Monday evening pilgrimage to Anfield carried out their proposed pre-match protest by releasing hundreds of black balloons into the Merseyside night and, within just nine minutes, West Ham's hopes of frustrating Liverpool looked to have sailed into the north-west wind, when the Reds quickly broke the deadlock.
A quick incisive move on the edge of the West Ham area saw Salah combine with Naby Keita and when Roberto Firmino's attempted shot ricocheted off Aaron Cresswell towards the corner flag, Trent Alexander-Arnold's right-wing cross into the danger-zone was met by Wijnaldum, who sneaked between Robert Snodgrass and Diop to head Liverpool in front.
Klopp's men had suffered a rare, third defeat of the season at Atletico Madrid last Tuesday and, following that Champions League round of 16 first-leg reverse, the German made just one enforced change as Keita replaced the injured Jordan Henderson (hamstring).
And having not had it all their own way out in Spain, the Reds equally found the Hammers refusing to surrender.
Indeed, with a dozen minutes on the clock, Moyes' boys equalised after forcing three quick-fire corners that climaxed with Snodgrass floating over a near-post corner, where Diop ghosted in front of Joe Gomez and powered a downward header through the clutches of Alisson.
The hosts almost conjured up an instant response to that West Ham leveller but Łukasz Fabianski brilliantly tipped over Salah's rising, angled effort while at the other end, another awkward Snodgrass corner eluded everyone in the Liverpool six-yard box.
Alisson was also forced to race from goal to gather as Antonio raced, Red Rum-like towards the Kop and, on the half-hour, the overlapping Alexander-Arnold rifled a low, angled 15-yarder beyond the base of Fabianski's right-hand post, too.
Alexander-Arnold then forced the Hammers keeper to tip aside his 20-yard free-kick before floating over the consequent corner that Virgil van Dijk headed onto the crossbar to the relief of everyone Claret & Blue and the frustration of those in Red.
Having made it to the interval all-square, West Ham could have found themselves trailing within seconds of the restart but the unmarked Firmino fired over with the goal at his mercy and, in trying to break up that early second-half move, Tomas Souček went down injured before being replaced by Fornals.
And the Spanish substitute took just seven minutes to make his presence known.
With skipper Mark Noble picking out Declan Rice - who had earlier been booked for kicking the ball away - the England midfielder fired in a low right-wing cross and with Gomez hesitating, Fornals swept a low eight-yarder past Alisson.
Stunned into silence, Anfield could only look on in desperation as Fabianski bravely dived into Mané's studs before parrying Alexander-Arnold's sizzling 25-yarder aside, while substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain - on for Keita - also drilled wide.
It was all hands to the pump for West Ham, who even saw Anderson clearing for a corner back on his own by-line before being replaced by Sébastien Haller and, with Diop also seeing yellow for man-handling Mané, the temperature was rising.
But having put in so much hard work to unexpectedly get their noses in front, West Ham then gifted the Reds an equaliser on 68 minutes, when Andrew Robertson burst down the left flank before cutting back to Salah, whose low 12-yarder squirmed between the crouching Fabianski's legs and over the line.
It was an awful goal to concede and the Pole then saw himself come under yet more pressure as Salah and Firmino failed to convert from close range, while at the other end, Antonio's touch deserted him at the crucial moment before Haller also fired straight at the well-positioned Alisson.
Noble was booked for hampering Oxlade-Chamberlain and, as the hosts corner count hit 15, the entire East End could have been forgiven for looking at a clock that did not appear to be ticking downwards
With nine minutes remining, though, Gomez let fly with an ambitious 25-yarder that deflected off the luckless Noble and, with Alexander-Arnold getting to the by-line first, the England full-back hooked over both the stranded Fabianski and Firmino but Mané simply could not miss and he duly prodded over the line.
The Senegalese international then had a second effort ruled out for offside by the Video Assistant Referee while substitute Bowen - on for Snodgrass - found himself with just Alisson to beat but the Liverpool 'keeper turned away the new boy's attempted chip to extend his side's lead at the top to no less than 22 points, while the Hammers now only have those 11 matches remaining to save their Premier League lives.
REDS: Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Gomez, van Dijk, Wijnaldum, Keita (Oxlade-Chamberlain 57), Fabinho, Salah, Mané (Matip 90), Firmino. Unused subs: Adrián, Lovren, Minamino, Lallana, Origi.
HAMMERS: Fabianski, Ngakia, Cresswell, Diop, Ogbonna, Souček (Fornals 47), Rice, Noble, Snodgrass (Bowen 84), Anderson (Haller 65), Antonio. Unused subs: Randolph, Balbuena, Zabaleta, Lanzini.
Booked: Rice (52), Diop (67), Noble (80).
Referee: Jonathan Moss