Torres brace secures win in Upton Park thriller
The appointment of Gianfranco Zola just over a year ago was met by the inevitable chorus of scepticism.
The critics spoke dismissively, describing it as another case of a former professional with little experience in management being appointed solely on his footballing ability.
The Hammers were tipped for relegation. Zola was prophesied to fail. A club bereft of money and dependant on the talent being harvested from their impressive youth academy.
The Upton Park side had already sold Anton Ferdinand and George McCartney in an attempt to strive off their baying creditors. It led to the departure of Alan Curbishley and the subsequent unveiling of Zola as the new boss.
Exactly 365 days ago the popular Italian emerged victorious from his baptism at Upton Park. A brace from his compatriot David Di Michele and a Matthew Etherington strike sealed a terrific 3-1 win.
His victorious start was short lived. His side slumped to one success in 14 outings before the disposal of Stoke City on December 28.
The second half of the season proved more fruitful. Zola imposed his style of management on the team and the results soon came on the pitch. Indeed the final standings saw West Ham miss out by a single point on qualification to the Europa League.
This season West Ham fans will be hoping for a top table finish once more. Some may even to dare to dream of Europe. The clash with Liverpool would prove an acid test for any European ambitions.
Two minutes into the game Zola received a gift-wrapped anniversary present. Liverpool’s generous offering took the form of Carragher dwelling on the ball, allowing Hines to pinch the ball of his foot.
The 20-year-old sprinted clean through on goal and fired past the helpless Reina only to be denied by the post with the ball gathered safely by the away keeper.
It was the first chance of a pulsating opening 45 minutes.
The visitors recovered from the early scare. The return of Javier Mascherano to the Liverpool midfield allowed Steven Gerrard to be reunited with Fernando Torres.
The pair combined with a delicate flick by the Spaniard sending the in-form Yossi Benayoun one-on-one with Robert Green. The Israeli only managed to steer his effort straight at the keeper.
Moments later Torres had a penalty claim denied. The ball appeared to hit the flailing hand of Hammers’ right-back Ilunga. Andre Marriner waved away the protestations.
The home side’s midfield then manufactured a chance for Carlton Cole. The giant striker flicked the ball into the path of Hines but Johnson’s diving interception prevented the youngster from adding the vital finish.
Liverpool’s number nine was in an uncompromising mood. The Gerrard-Torres partnership came alive once more, with the Red’s skipper crossing for Torres.
A delightful first touch and a swift swivel saw the Spaniard unleash a half volley at the West Ham goal. It landed on the wrong side of the post but it was a warning sign that the home side failed to take heed of.
A double step-over by Torres bamboozled the opposing defender Tomkins. Disorientated, he failed to match the Spaniards acceleration, allowing Torres to poke a rising shot past the diving Green.
One would expect Liverpool to build on the goal and claim all three points.
But Carragher once again was found wanting. Worryingly for Rafa Benitez the Anfield icon is becoming a liability at the back.
His lack of pace resulted in a desperate shove on Hines who was proceeding to streak past the centre back. A penalty was awarded.
The Italian Alessando Diamanti looped the ball into the net, albeit requiring two touches in the process.
Just over 10 minutes later Liverpool’s lead was restored. Gerrard nodded the ball towards the left corner of Green’s goal. The slightest of touches by Dirk Kuyt ensured his team reclaimed the lead.
But it was an advantage that they failed to defend to the half time break.
Martin Skrtel’s casual pass was lapped up by the electric Hines. Subsequently the Slovakian steamrollered the Hammers’ forward in a clumsy attempt to win the ball back.
The resulting free kick was deflected for a corner. Reina failed to marshal any of his men onto the post. Carlton Cole out leaped Skrtel to glance the ball into the corner of the net.
The teams trudged in at the break with the scores level at 2-2.
Instilled with the words of wisdom from both managers the teams employed a more conservative attitude at the start of the second half.
Upon 60 minutes Benitez opted for the offensive approach opposed to the cautious attitude which is usually his mantra. Ryan Babel replaced Dirk Kuyt with Benayoun remaining on the pitch.
For five brief minutes Yossi morphed into Messi. A darting run by the number 11 teed up Torres who had his shot well blocked by the Upton Park rearguard.
It was followed by a divine dribble as the Israeli launched his own personal vendetta against his former club’s defenders. He beat four defenders with quick feet that would earn him a starring role on tonight’s Strictly Come Dancing.
Unfortunately for Benayoun he failed to find the waiting Gerrard. The chance broke down.
On the 75 minute mark Ryan Babel repaid the faith Benitez endowed in him. A deft cross by the Dutchman was headed home by Torres past the despairing England number one to make it 3-2.
It was the goal that effectively killed the match as a contest. Liverpool showed their experience successfully seeing out the remaining quarter of an hour.
They limited the home side to hopeful long-balls floated towards Cole. Any chances were soon sniffed out by the Red’s defence.
It was a disappointing end to what has been a positive first year for Zola at the helm of West Ham. Meanwhile the victory saw Liverpool rise to third in the league behind Manchester United and Chelsea.