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Downing delivers for Hammers as Reds rocked by great expectations

Rewind three-and-a-half years to late February 2011. Liverpool faced a tough European game at Anfield in midweek, edged it with a late winner and then went to West Ham United only to lose 3-1.

The very same thing just happened to the Reds, but the tone for a European hangover Coral’s experts feared was set early on here. Brendan Rodgers’ boys paid the price for a poor start at Upton Park, going two down in less than seven first-half minutes. They are now 25/1 chances to win the Premier League.

Back post crosses, or at least that’s what they were meant to be, were Liverpool’s undoing as Hammers fans conveniently ditched the complaints that often swirl around the Boleyn Ground about the style under Sam Allardyce. You only sing when you’re winning springs to mind.

For man of the match Stewart Downing, having a hand in two goals against his former club could not have been any sweeter. Forced to play as a makeshift left back by Rodgers during the final months of his time on Merseyside, this ex-England international delighted in destroying the Reds defence with dead ball deliveries and slipping in substitute Morgan Amalfitano to round off victory.

Both in this personal story surrounding Downing and in perhaps achieving a Champions League place a season ahead of schedule, Rodgers has rather reaped what he’s sown. In returning to Europe’s elite club competition, he is right to assert:

“There is a new expectation at the club. Teams have always wanted to beat us but we are even more of a rival now. We have to deal with it.”

And the jury is out on how Liverpool have done that so far. An outstanding rearguard action from Aston Villa, the kind that splashing out £20m on Dejan Lovren should result in for the Reds, coupled with West Ham’s new-look attack running riot have made for a sandwich of losses filled with edging Ludogorets.

Rodgers cannot take his big money buy to shore up defence out of the firing line either, as former vice-captain Daniel Agger returned to boyhood club Brondby when it became clear his place was lost.

It was vintage Big Sam tactics for the Hammers opener; a set piece swung in by Downing, nodded back across goal by centre back James Tomkins for defensive partner Winston Reid to turn in. For Diafra Sakho, it was a case of did he mean it? His cross-shot found the top corner, with Enner Valencia there to finish the chance anyway if it had dropped short.

Simon Mignolet had to make several other saves, but some West Ham attempts didn’t look like they were going on target. His judgement is coming into question more and more. Former Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes is a free agent after leaving the Nou Camp, with rumours persisting he will throw his lot in with Rodgers when he recovers from a serious knee injury.

Raheem Sterling, the Reds’ best player now Luis Suarez has gone and Daniel Sturridge is sidelined through injury, pulled one back following a tactical switch to three at the back. Aaron Cresswell blocked Mario Balotelli’s effort only for the rebound to be lashed in by the England man, who operated at right wing back for three-quarters of this game with the emphasis on wing.

Downing was not finished hurting the opposition fans who once jeered him, however. His through ball for sub Amalfitano left Mignolet beaten again, sapping confidence built up by a handsome win on Liverpool’s last visit to London against Spurs.

Up next for Rodgers is entering another competition, the Capital One Cup and a third round tie with Middlesbrough, managed by Rodgers’ fellow Jose Mourinho protege Aitor Karanka. A televised audience will sit in judgement, with the hosts odds-on 1/3 favourites to beat Boro in 90 minutes.