Gerrard (right) has now scored 23 goals so far this season
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer at Upton Park
Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres were back in tandem to devastating effect as Liverpool returned to the Premier League summit - at least temporarily - with a comfortable victory at West Ham United.
Liverpool's captain and the Spain striker were making only their 12th league appearance of the season together at Upton Park.
And they gave a demonstration of what Liverpool have missed in their absence as they spearheaded the win that put Rafael Benitez's side back on top of the table on goal difference - although title favourites Manchester United crucially have two games in hand.
Benitez still believes in Reds title chances
The pair combined as Liverpool took the lead inside two minutes when Torres unlocked the West Ham defence with a perfect pass that allowed Gerrard to run clear and round West Ham keeper Robert Green to finish in style.
And, when Torres was fouled by Luis Boa Morte seven minutes before the interval, Gerrard scored from a rebound after his penalty was saved by Green.
Liverpool wrapped up the formalities six minutes from time when substitute Ryan Babel scored from Dirk Kuyt's cross after his first effort was blocked by the unfortunate Green.
West Ham entered the game with their sights set on qualifying for the Europa League via seventh place, but they never recovered from Gerrard's opening salvo and anxious moments were few and far between for Liverpool.
Radoslav Kovac headed Mark Noble's free-kick over the bar, but their best opportunity was wasted in almost comic fashion by David di Michele just before half-time, when he stumbled and fell to the ground as looked poised to round Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina and reduce the arrears.
Liverpool made light of the absence of influential midfield man Xabi Alonso, out injured after the tackle that earned Newcastle United's Joey Barton a red card at Anfield last Sunday, and always carried too much firepower for West Ham.
Benitez admitted before the game that all Liverpool could do was to keep winning and hope to force a mistake from Manchester United, and it was mission accomplished as they comfortably negotiated a fixture that was widely seen as potentially hazardous.
It means United drop to second place, at least until they play neighbours Manchester City on Sunday, and while the odds remain firmly in favour of the title staying at Old Trafford, Liverpool and boss Benitez can rightly take much satisfaction in the fact they have pushed them all the way.
They Reds will also reflect on the fact that their two players of undoubted world-class quality, Gerrard and Torres, have been unable to inflict their deadly partnership on the Premier League on so many occasions this season.
Gerrard 'proud' of Liverpool progress
West Ham boss Zola, meanwhile, was given a close-up and sobering view of the gap between his side and those operating at the top end of the table.
Liverpool knew only victory would suffice if they were to harbour serious hopes of pushing the title race to the wire - and they got the perfect start as they delivered the swiftest of blows to take the lead.
Torres slipped a slide-rule pass through to Gerrard, and as West Ham's defence appealed in vain for offside Liverpool's captain rounded Green and finished expertly, never looking for a moment like he would squander the opportunity.
West Ham's confidence was knocked by that early setback, but they did finally muster a threat on Liverpool's goal after 26 minutes when Kovac beat Reina to Noble's free-kick, only to send his header over the top.
Babel put the finishing touch on Liverpool's win
But any hopes of a West Ham revival looked to be snuffed out seven minutes before the interval when Gerrard doubled Liverpool's lead after an incident that left the home fans fuming.
Boa Morte clearly felt he has been fouled near the edge of his own penalty area, but foolishly reacted by pulling Torres' shirt inside the area, with referee Alan Wiley perfectly placed to give the decision.
Gerrard saw his spot-kick superbly saved by Green, but reacted first ahead of West Ham's defenders to steer in the rebound as the keeper scrambled desperately across his goal.
West Ham then missed an opportunity to grasp at a lifeline in a farcical incident three minutes before half-time.
Di Michele took advantage of Jamie Carragher's mistake to race clear and round Reina, but he tripped right in front of goal and when he tried to salvage the situation with a dive was left embarrassed as he was booked by referee Riley.
Zola praises Hammers despite defeat
Torres almost added to West Ham's hurt when a moment of defensive hesitation allowed him to get in a header, but it looped agonisingly off target.
Liverpool almost put the game out of sight six minutes after the break when - with Matthew Upson off the field receiving treatment - Kuyt found Yossi Benayoun at the far post, but the former West Ham midfield man could not keep his volley down.
West Ham struggled to inflict any serious blows on Liverpool's rearguard, and it was no surprise when Zola made a change after 59 minutes when he replaced Junior Stanislas with Jack Collison.
But it was Liverpool who made the next opportunity when they sprang on West Ham from their free-kick to break clear, but when Gerrard found Kuyt, Green was alert enough to make a crucial block.
Liverpool rounded off an impressive performance in style six minutes from time when Gerrard found Kuyt raiding down the right.
He found Babel unmarked only eight yards out, and he slammed home an emphatic finish after Green blocked his first attempt.
It crowned an efficient display from Liverpool - and at least gave Manchester United food for thought ahead of the derby at Old Trafford.
Green, Neill, Tomkins, Upson, Ilunga, Boa Morte (Payne 80), Noble, Kovac, Stanislas (Collison 59), Di Michele (Sears 70), Tristan.
Subs Not Used: Lastuvka, Lopez, Nsereko, Spector.
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