With six matches remaining in their English Premier League fixture list, Liverpool's European ambition could still become reality. But after a scoreless draw at home to West Ham United on Sunday, that ambition is looking more like an illusion.
Central defenders James Tomkins and James Collins marshaled an organized West Ham resistance, and keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen made eight saves as Liverpool's attacks went unrewarded. The hosts dominated possession, 65 percent to West Ham's 35 (via WhoScored.com), but none of their 20 shots—eight on target—found the net.
The result put Liverpool on 49 points, six behind fifth-placed Chelsea, who play later Sunday. For the Reds, qualification for the Champions League, or even the Europa League, remains possible mathematically, but it is becoming increasingly unlikely. For West Ham, who have struggled on their travels all season, it was just a third away draw of the campaign.
The potential reasons for Liverpool's frustration were numerous. Of their 21 total crosses, only two found the target. Of their 12 corners, only five were successful (via Squawka.com). The referee waved away multiple penalty appeals, but West Ham maintained their defensive discipline and Jaaskelainen turned in a strong performance.
Below are Liverpool's 12 corners against West Ham, most of which failed to reach the desired target:
Below are Liverpool's 21 crosses, only two of which were completed:
Finally, here's West Ham's heat map from the match:
For all of West Ham's defensive initiative, however, Liverpool were still the first to threaten.
Philippe Coutinho tested Jaaskelainen in the seventh minute, cutting in from the left before shooting low toward the near post, only for Jaaskelainen to save. Moments later, captain Steven Gerrard mishit a volley when set up by Luis Suarez near the edge of the box.
Glen Johnson's early penalty appeal was denied, and then Jordan Henderson's weak near-post header was easily held. At the other end, Mohamed Diame wriggled through the Liverpool defense with loads of skill in the box, only to shoot well over.
Stewart Downing went off midway through the first half, replaced by Daniel Sturridge. The move nearly paid off moments later, as Sturridge led an attack that ended with Suarez forcing another save out of Jaaskelainen.
It was Liverpool's best opportunity yet. Further chances came before the break—Jaaskelainen blocked Sturridge's shot in a scramble in front of West Ham's goal—but Liverpool could not maintain their tempo from the opening 20 minutes, and neither team found the net in the first 45.
The match opened up early in the second half, and Liverpool nearly went ahead in the 55th minute. Suarez weaved some magic in the box and his cross was deflected out to Gerrard, whose shot was cleared off the line. The Uruguayan then flashed a pass across the face of goal, and Sturridge's goal was ruled out for offside as Liverpool came closer to a breakthrough.
Controversy flared in the 70th minute. Tomkins—who had a penalty shot of his own at the other end earlier in the second half—felled Gerrard in the box, but referee Anthony Taylor waved off Liverpool's appeal as the Kop howled. Replays showed Tomkins made a slight touch on the ball.
Gerrard curled a shot over in the 74th minute, and Jaaskelainen saved Sturridge's low shot four minutes later. Daniel Agger shot just wide in the 83rd minute before Collins nearly gave West Ham a shock lead with a powerful header that Lucas Leiva cleared off the line.
In stoppage time, Jaaskelainen saved once more from Suarez, pushing aside a low shot at the near post. On the ensuing corner, no Liverpool player rose to meet the ball, which bounced away harmlessly in the box.
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West Ham boss Sam Allardyce: "I am content even though we should have won. We nullified Liverpool’s strengths & created the better chances."4/7/2013, 2:41:57 PM
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Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers: “We were outstanding in terms of our game. The players's effort was great. We just needed a bit of luck."4/7/2013, 3:01:33 PM
With that, Liverpool's frustration was complete and the Reds were left to watch results elsewhere in the league. But even if all the results break their way, Brendan Rodgers' men are looking more and more like an outside bet for Europe.