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January 31, 2007 2:00 am

Liverpool rely on the old stealth

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Liverpool are a team who can only work by stealth. Only when they had fallen so far off the pace that everybody had written them off did they begin to play this season, and then on Tuesday night they waited until a timid West Ham had begun to settle before taking control themselves, writes Jonathan Wilson at Upton Park.

In the end, a 2-1 victory was comfortable enough, and they will revel in particular in the quality of the goals.

This was more of a clearing of the throat than a warning shot across the bows, but the implacability of Liverpool will unsettle Chelsea.

They are now only two points behind the champions, who face Blackburn tonight. West Ham, meanwhile, look in dire straits. In the seven league games since Alan Curbishley's first game in charge brought victory over Manchester United, West Ham have picked up only three points. They lie third from bottom, two points behind Wigan, whose freefall continued with a 2-1 defeat at Reading, but, significantly, now seven points adrift of Sheffield United, who beat Fulham 2-0.

The meeting between them in the FA Cup finalin May is generally acknowledged to have been one of the greatest games in the competition's history; the only similarity last night was that Liverpool came on stronger in the second half. Until the away side began to play after half-time, this was bitty, ugly football, littered with errors and misplaced passes.

It wasn't until the 32nd minute that West Ham managed a shot on target. Nigel Reo-Coker's long-range drive never seriously threatened, but it raised a roar loud enough for Marlon Harewood to be persuaded to try his luck from similar range two minutes later. This time, Pepe Reina, at full stretch, tipped the ball wide; the deftest of touches, but in the end it was crucial.

It took Liverpool only 11 seconds after half-time to take the lead, Dirk Kuyt's 25-yard drive looping over Roy Carroll's dive and clipping the crossbar on its way in. Eight minutes later, John Arne Riise found space on the left, laid the ball inside, and Peter Crouch stroked a calm finish into the top corner.

Kepa Blanco, on loan from Sevilla, came off the bench to score two minutes into his debut - looking suspiciously offside as he touched in Bobby Zamora's cross - but for all the frenetic nature of their play in the next 13 minutes, West Ham's threat was minimal. These are worrying times at Upton Park.

Charlton have secured the loan signing of Arsenal youngster Alexandre Song until the end of the season. The 19-year-old Cameroon midfielder has featured twice for the Gunners in the Premiership this season, as well as in their Carling Cup run. However, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was keen for the player to gain more first-team experience.

Liverpool are on the verge of signing Deportivo La Coruna defender Álvaro Arbeloa, according to the Spanish side. The 24-year-old right-back is expected to join for a fee in the region of £2.6m.

AC Milan have completed the signing of Real Madrid striker Ronaldo. The 30-year-old Brazil international has agreed an 18-month contract with the Italian club. The transfer fee is thought to be in the region of €7.5m (£5m).

''My heart's breaking but life goes on,'' Ronaldo said. ''I'm a great Madrid fan. I'm not so sure about the coach.'' He has not been picked to play by Capello since a January 7 defeat.

Edgar Davids has joined Ajax, the club where the Dutch midfielder made his name. The 33-year-old Tottenham midfielder has agreed an 18-month deal with the Amsterdam side.

Newcastle have completed the signing of US defender Oguchi Onyewu, on loan from Belgian club Standard Liege until season's end.

CRICKET England were outclassed once again on Tuesday in the Commonwealth Bank Series as New Zealand took a step nearer to a place in the best-of-three finals.

The 58-run defeat at the Waca means England's only chance of extending their terrible tour is now to beat Australia and New Zealand in their final two group games. New Zealand's 318 for seven was comfortably their highest against England in one-day internationals and came courtesy of another belligerent piece of hitting from Jacob Oram, who cracked an unbeaten 54 from only 33 balls.

England were savaged in the final few overs as Oram smashed 35 runs from his final 10 deliveries. The left-hander followed scores of 86 and 101 not out by hitting four sixes in addition to three fours.

Fast bowler Chris Tremlett bore the brunt in the penultimate over, which cost 22, while captain Andrew Flintoff conceded 16 in the 50th.

Ed Joyce's maiden international half-century - only the third by an England batsman in this triangular tournament - provided the backbonefor the chase. But from a position of 99 for one, England lost five wickets for 63 runs in 17 overs.

Joyce and Ian Bell shared a 72-run stand for the second wicket, which was halted when, seconds after lofting Jeetan Patel for a straight six, Bell chipped to mid-wicket.

Joyce then fell to a brilliant piece of fielding from Lou Vincent.

Paul Nixon hit two sixes to provide entertainment on the way to registering a career-best 49, but the match was already over by the time his 76-run alliance with Liam Plunkett had begun at 184 for seven in the 41st over.

RUGBY UNION Francehave turned to David Skrela to solve their problems at outside-half, writes Huw Richards.

The Stade Français player, 27, son of the celebrated and iconic 1970s forward Jean-Claude Skrela, wins his second cap six years after his first when the French begin their RBS Six Nations title defence with a tricky trip to improving Italy on Saturday.

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