Steven Gerrard
Steven Gerrard celebrates scoring his second penalty against West Ham with his Liverpool teammates. Reuters

Two penalties from Steven Gerrard kept Liverpool’s title challenge on track after a nervy and controversy-filled 2-1 victory over West Ham at Upton Park.

West Ham provided a stiff challenge to Liverpool throughout and the hugely damaging loss of two points was looking a firm possibility before their winner with 19 minutes remaining. The manner in which it came will be debated long and hard after West Ham keeper Adrian was adjudged to have illegally brought down Jon Flanagan in the box despite getting to the ball. Still, huge credit must go to Liverpool’s captain, who maintained his composure among the raging arguments and huge pressure to strike confidently into the net.

And Liverpool will feel it was at the very least a case of justice being served following the manner in which Gerrard’s opening penalty, resulting from a clearly deliberate James Tomkins handball, was cancelled out right on the stroke of half time. From a corner, former Liverpool striker Andy Carroll clearly fouled goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who spilled the ball straight to Guy Demel to poke into the net. Having initially awarded the goal, referee Anthony Taylor stuck with his decision despite being called over by one of his assistants.

For Liverpool, it was a priceless three points to take them back to the Premier League summit and a match that epitomized the cliché of title winners needing to win when not at their best. Ahead of their top-of-the-table clash with Manchester City next week, the three points keeps the destination of the title in their own hands. Now having secured their ninth win in a row, five more for Liverpool will end their 24-year wait for their 19th championship.

They were certainly made to work for this victory. In contrast to their limp performance against Manchester United last week, West Ham were up for the challenge of denting Liverpool’s title challenge from the off. And the two former Liverpool players in West Ham’s lineup were key to their positive performance. While Stewart Downing was causing problems on the break down the left, Carroll was posing an expected threat against Liverpool’s center-backs. But Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, starting as a result of the late withdrawal of Daniel Agger, bended but for the most past didn’t break despite their opponents’ repeated aerial assault.

But, starting in a 4-3-3 formation, Liverpool were struggling to control the game as they would have liked. Indeed, their best moments in the opening half came on the counter-attack. Luis Suarez almost broke the deadlock with a typically brilliant and audacious chip that beat Adrian but came back off the crossbar. His partner in crime was having a day to forget, however. In contrast to his form in front of goal this season, Daniel Sturridge snatched at several chances, with most of them ending up high in the stands.

There will have been much relief then when, with a minute to go before half-time, Liverpool got a break to help them go in front. Gerrard struck a trademark long pass with unerring accuracy right to Suarez in the box and, as the forward went to cut inside, Tomkins blatantly stuck out his arm to prevent the ball going past him. Having set up the penalty, Gerrard coolly sent Adrian the wrong way from the spot.

At that point Liverpool would already have been thinking about a far more pleasant half-time break. Instead West Ham’s aerial threat came to the fore to get them level. The hosts have an argument that Skrtel shoved Carroll from behind, but there could be no doubt that Carroll went in with his hand first into the face of Mignolet and then struck the goalkeeper’s arm to cause him to drop the ball. Diame was on hand to put his side level with a goal that stood despite a long consultation between referee and assistant.

Rodgers again showed his ability to change games for the positive by bringing on Lucas for Philippe Coutinho at half-time. It meant Liverpool were able to enjoy far more possession, while it allowed Suarez to move through the middle and enjoy much greater influence.

Still, it was West Ham who had the first chance of the period. From Mohamed Diame’s deep cross, Glen Johnson proved no match for Carroll, who crashed a header goalward but saw it smash against the crossbar. Instead, it would be Liverpool who got the crucial go-ahead goal.

Flanagan was played in down the left, and although Adrian got out quickly to get a clear touch to the ball, the West Ham goalkeeper appeared to drag back the leg of the young full-back to ensure he wouldn’t go past him. A continued protest from Adrian had little impact on Gerrard, who this time struck the penalty with pace and accuracy right into the left side of the net.

There was no way back from that for West Ham, who posed little threat to get a second equalizer. Indeed, if anything, the scoreline might have been made more comfortable for the visitors. Suarez was menacing the West Ham defense and forced Adrian to save with his legs while hitting the crossbar with another outlandish effort, this time with the outside of his boot.