Liverpool FC 3, West Ham United 0: Ian Doyle sees the Reds overcome a sorry Hammers side
WHEN it comes to causing Liverpool problems, it's clear West Ham United can't hold a candle to some volcanic ash.
In a week in which disruption both on and off the field threatens plans for a successful end to a tortuous campaign, last night proved uncharacteristically straightforward for Rafael Benitez and his players.
A comfortable home win against the relegation-threatened Hammers provided a welcome boost for morale ahead of Thursday's Europa League semi-final first leg at Atletico Madrid.
Of course, the fallout from the volcanic eruption in Iceland requires Liverpool to embark today on a lengthy trek on planes, trains and automobiles to simply honour the fixture.
And while they may be without Fernando Torres for the rest of the season, Benitez's side have demonstrated they retain the stomach for a fight.
Quite literally in the case of Yossi Benayoun, who used his midriff to divert home Steven Gerrard's free-kick in the 19th minute and set Liverpool on their way back up to sixth place in the Premier League table.
With David Ngog filling the gaping Torres-shaped hole in Liverpool's attack with a goal 10 minutes later, minds were already drifting towards the journey to Madrid long before Robert Green's unfortunate own goal settled matters shortly before the hour.
Changes in the team, changes in the boardroom.
Martin Broughton took his seat on the front row of the directors' box for the first time since being installed last week as chairman by co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to oversee the sale of the club.
As a Chelsea fan, he will have no doubt noted the ease at which Liverpool strolled to victory ahead of the Londoners' crunch visit here in less than a fortnight.
But Broughton will also have been acutely aware of the swathes of empty seats around Anfield last night.
Sure, a televised Monday night game against lowly opposition is never going to be the greatest draw, but it's clear supporters clearly disillusioned by the current regime voted with their feet, resulting in the lowest league attendance at Anfield since December 2004.
Recent form hasn't helped.
Having taken just 12 points from their previous nine league games, Liverpool had effectively frittered away their hopes of a top-four place and a Champions League berth.
Indeed, leapfrogged by Aston Villa over the weekend and with Everton pressing hard, these three points were necessary to dissipate the danger of the ultimate ignominy of missing out on European qualification altogether.
West Ham haven't won at Anfield since September 1963, and there was never any chance of that fact being altered here, the abject performance from Gianfranco Zola's side far outshone by that of the boisterous travelling support.
Pepe Reina was virtually a spectator on his way to a 15th clean sheet in the Premier League this season, moving him one ahead of Petr Cech in the race for the Golden Gloves award.
The operation for Torres has at least ended the uncertainty that surrounded the striker's availability in recent weeks, allowing Benitez to plan without his leading scorer for the remainder of the season.
It means Ngog can expect to play a leading role during the coming weeks, last night partnered by Dirk Kuyt with Liverpool operating a conventional 4-4-2 formation.
Doubts persist over whether the young Frenchman can justify his manager's faith of being able to perform at this level, although often he finds himself criticised for simply not being Torres.
The grumbles from the home support that met his failure to take Glen Johnson's ball over the top on his chest early on suggested many in Anfield remain unconvinced, too much of his good work coming outside the area.
Ngog, though, has a fan in Zola, who spoke positively of the forward before the game.
And the Italian was proven right on 29 minutes when Ngog smashed a volley through Green from Maxi Rodriguez's right-wing cross after the Argentine was found by a typically probing Benayoun pass.
That gave Liverpool a two-goal advantage after a bright start in which, while never threatening to hit the heights, they possessed far too much for a West Ham side that, shorn of suspended midfielder Scott Parker, seemed oblivious to their perilous plight.
Benayoun was busy against his former club.
The Israeli released Maxi early on for a shot that warmed the palms of Green before breaking the deadlock on 19 minutes.
A free-kick from the right was whipped in by Gerrard and, with the West Ham defence dozing, Benayoun raced in unchecked to direct the ball in off the post with what television replays confirmed was his stomach.
Gerrard's excellent set-piece delivery should have resulted in another goal shortly afterwards, his swept corner from the right finding the unmarked Sotirios Kyrgiakos whose header bounced into the turf and over the crossbar.
Kuyt forced Green to scramble across goal and turn his speculative 25-yard shot around the post while Ngog saw claims for a penalty waved away by referee Peter Walton when challenged by Valon Behrami.
Zola signified ambition by starting with two up front, but that served only to open up more space for Liverpool to exploit.
The visitors threatened only briefly.
West Ham striker Carlton Cole won a scrap for possession with Jamie Carragher at the far post and struck an angled drive that was clutched by Pepe Reina, before the same player dragged an effort wide from range.
Liverpool, though, remained in control after the break and forged further ahead on 59 minutes.
Once again, it came from a Gerrard dead-ball delivery, the skipper's free-kick from the left curled deep where Kyrgiakos prodded against the post and saw the ball deflect in off the legs of the unlucky Green.
Gerrard had a trademark blast blocked by the West Ham defence as the visitors allowed Benitez's side to construct attacks with relative ease, Maxi close to a fourth late on with a first-time angled shot that almost caught out Green at his near post.
The journey to Madrid will certainly be a lot more testing than this game.