LONDON — Three thoughts from Liverpool’s dominant 4-0 win at West Ham that keeps Jurgen Klopp’s side firmly in the top-four race…
1. Coutinho takes Liverpool to the brink
Liverpool’s path to next season’s Champions League is clear: beat Middlesbrough at home next Sunday, and Liverpool will qualify. Philippe Coutinho, who supplied the visitors’ first goal for Daniel Sturridge before rattling in a pair of fearsome strikes himself, has taken them to the brink of the promised land.
West Ham United
This was a far better performance from Jurgen Klopp’s team following recent wobbles though until Coutinho injected them with variation and verve, as has been their problem in 2017, Liverpool struggled for fluency. They might even had been behind but Sam Byram dragged a shot wide before Edimilson Fernandes forced Simon Mignolet into a full-length save.
West Ham tried to sit deep and soak up pressure. In the opening half-hour, the best play was being provided by Manuel Lanzini, who has replaced Dimitri Payet as West Ham’s outlet for flair. The absence of Sadio Mane looked keenly felt once more by Liverpool before Coutinho took hold to inspire the 35th minute opener. Taking advantage of a massive gap in the centre of the park, Coutinho found Sturridge speeding though West Ham’s offside trap and beyond goalkeeper Adrian. For someone making his first Premier League start since January, there was little sign of rustiness as Sturridge calmly slotted from a narrow angle.
West Ham then rued an inexplicable miss by Andre Ayew a minute from half-time. After a goalmouth scramble, the club’s record signing could only hit his shot off the base of a post from a yard out. His attempt to direct the rebounded ball goalwards was soft enough for Liverpool to finally clear their lines.
That was as close as West Ham came to landing a blow on Liverpool, who began the second half as if determined to get the job done quickly. Sturridge, Adam Lallana and Divock Origi all went close. Adrian was now severely overworked; he could not get a hand to a Georginio Wijnaldum shot that rattled the crossbar. Coutinho’s follow-up effort, drilled low, then beat the goalkeeper to his right in the 57th minute.
Five minutes after that second Liverpool goal, Coutinho put the game beyond reach when slashing in the ball from close range, having been left to do so by West Ham’s defenders: the hosts were distracted by referee Neil Swarbrick waving on what looked an obvious handball by Wijnaldum.
Origi grabbed Liverpool’s fourth, as third in a Liverpool queue looking to convert some imaginative approach play from Sturridge. It was a goal that sent many home fans peeling to the exits rather than staying for a lap of honour after West Ham’s final home of the season.
Should Liverpool win their home finale next week, you can guarantee there will be far more to celebrate.
2. An excellent audition for Sturridge
Sturridge has been widely linked with a move away from Merseyside given his struggles this season. So it was fascinating to see him starring on Sunday against one of the clubs most heavily rumoured to be interested in his services.
He and Klopp have been an uneasy alliance in the German’s 19 months in charge. It was Sturridge who scored a wondrous goal against Sevilla in last season’s Europa League final, a match in which he also failed as first line of defence. For Klopp, those defensive duties are as important as attacking flair, which might explain his usual preference for Firmino and Origi; the latter is industrious to the core if not blessed with Sturridge’s gifts.
There is little denying, though, the talent that Sturridge possesses and the prime evidence was provided by the excellence of his goal. His injury record and Klopp’s preference for a single striker (injuries here forced the employment of a central pair) still make it unlikely that he will remain at Anfield beyond the summer.
Meanwhile, an ambitious West Ham side might be just the place for him to begin the next stage of his career, even if the club already have one “sick-note” striker in Andy Carroll. Sturridge’s goal, as well as the linkup play that supplied Liverpool’s fourth for Origi, should have added a significant sum to his sale price.
3. Hammers run out of players
Last Friday’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham was probably the first time that the London Stadium felt properly like home for anyone connected to West Ham. It was a atmosphere to remind of Upton Park’s finest hours, when baying Cockney voices helped raise the performance of the team. But on this quiet, sunny Sunday afternoon, there was little chance of replicating the fervour of that London derby victory.
Last week’s game was won in midfield, where Cheikhou Kouyate and Mark Noble were outstanding, but both players had been sent for operations this week to cure long-standing problems now that safety from relegation has secured. Fernandes and Havard Nordtveit were their stand-ins here and did pretty well for much of the first half, only to be found wanting as Coutinho carved that first-half goal for Sturridge. The Brazilian surged into territory that West Ham’s defensive midfielders ought to have been covering. From that point on, West Ham had little way back into the affair.
Manager Slaven Bilic’s future remains uncertain even if he said this week that he still felt welcome at the club. His team’s surrender here will do his cause little good but at his postseason post-mortem meeting with the club’s owners, he can point to a crippling injury list.
Before Sunday’s match, Hammer of the Year Michail Antonio was introduced to the crowd on crutches. It has been a long, hard first season at the London Stadium, in which eight players have gone under the surgeon’s knife; even Bilic’s assistant Julian Dicks suffered the curse, having damaged a knee this week in a pre-training kick-around.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.