LONDON (AP) — Liverpool reclaimed top spot in the Premier League after two penalties from captain Steven Gerrard helped his team beat West Ham 2-1 Sunday to remain firmly in the hunt for the club's first league title since 1990.
Liverpool's ninth win in a row restored a two-point lead over Chelsea with five games to play, and also sets up a crucial game against Manchester City next weekend which could go a long way to determining who wins the title.
City is four points behind Liverpool but with two games in hand, meaning that if either team wins all their remaining games, they win the title.
West Ham had won its previous two games to establish a gap to the relegation zone and remained in 11th place after offering tough resistance to the title-chasing visitors.
"We had to stand up and be counted, and we've done that," Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said.
Gerrard put Liverpool ahead from the spot in the 44th minute after West Ham defender James Tomkins handled a flick by Luis Suarez in the area.
However, the lead didn't last long. In injury time, West Ham defender Guy Demel equalized when Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet spilled a cross following a challenge from Andy Carroll. The assistant referee initially signaled for a foul on Carroll, but referee Anthony Taylor overruled him after a lengthy discussion, despite protests from the Liverpool players.
Carroll had the best chance in the early exchanges of the second half, hitting the bar with a 62nd-minute header, and the former Liverpool striker often unsettled the visitors' defense with his strong physical presence.
But Gerrard scored his second — and Liverpool's 90th of the season — in the 71st minute after Liverpool defender Jon Flanagan was adjudged to have been brought down by West Ham goalkeeper Adrian following an incisive run into the penalty box.
"Unfortunately they've won the game on two penalties rather than their attractive football that they normally play," West Ham manager Sam Allardyce said. "The players have to take a lot of credit for that but we are disappointed we didn't get anything out of the game."
Rodgers was vociferous in his praise for the 33-year-old Gerrard, who is set to lead England at this summer's World Cup in Brazil.
"It's not by accident, he studies the goalkeepers," Rodgers said. "For me, as a manager to have someone as cool and calm as him in those pressure situations, he did fantastically well."
Liverpool striker Suarez was held scoreless but proved a constant menace to the West Ham defense and rattled the bar with two audacious chips in either half. With 29 goals, the Uruguay striker is just two short of the Premier League record for a 38-game season of 31 held by Alan Shearer and Christiano Ronaldo.
Rodgers said his team won't be over-awed by next week's game, which will take place nearly 25 years to the day 96 Liverpool fans were killed in the Hillsborough disaster — a somber backdrop for the potential title decider.
"They will certainly be in our thoughts, the 96 in the sky and the families that go with them," Rodgers said. "The mentality is to be fearless, it doesn't matter who we play."