My Player-by-Player Assessment of the Season So Far
Posted by Paul Tomkins on December 28, 2004, 02:26:13 PM
So here it, my thorough assessment of how I feel each player has performed this season. I have used the old school marking system (A+ to D-) to rate each first team player now we've reached the halfway stage. It has been a season that has seen some brilliant individual performances, and huge strides made by many players, but the team as a whole - while sparking brilliantly at times - hasn't quite yet settled into any consistency.A+ Steven Gerrard
His game grows ever-more complete. Despite missing half of the season so far, he has already scored more goals (seven) than in 50-odd games last season (six), and all have been from open-play (if you include strikes from indirect free-kicks rolled to him). He has been sublime in every area of the pitch. Whether he is the best Liverpool FC has ever seen is doubtful; however, we've never seen a more complete player.
In the Premiership only Thierry Henry is fit to lace Stevie G's boots. Gerrard has been our best player - but like Arsenal with Henry, it doesn't make us a one-man team. We might not have as many top-class players as we'd like, but we certainly have a few. We've also managed to do well in Gerrard's absence.
Ultimately, players will leave a club if they feel in their heart that it is time to make a move. If the club isn't successful, they leave in search of medals; if the club is successful, they say they've won everything and need a new challenge. But obviously players would prefer to hang around in the latter scenario. He certainly won't leave this winter, but next summer will be the time to get him to sign a new deal (which I doubt he will - if he does, it may be a short extension only, while he assesses our progress) or sell.
Speculation about his future means we're all holding our breath, and no-doubt keeping our emotions in check. It's hard to fully love someone you think might soon be leaving you. We need to remember just how good he is, and just how good he has been this season. If we were to sell him we could bring in a number of quality players - but none would be as good as he is. However, we may end up with a better team, and a stronger squad.A Xabi Alonso
Along with Arjen Robben, listed by many media pundits as the best buy of the summer. Hard to argue with that, isn't it? Alonso is without doubt the best passer of the ball in England; which obviously helps as we aim to become a passing side once again. Alonso is Jan Molby reincarnated, after a stint on the Atkins Diet.
Hustle and harry him, and of course he looks a little less impressive - very few players can cope with extra attention, or being man-marked, or having two players nearby (although it does allow others more freedom). But Xabi has a lot of clever turns and dummies, to buy himself space for the pass. He has also shown he can tackle, and take a bad tackle, too - his full debut at Bolton was notable for the number of times he was clattered. Alonso's 'quarterback' role means he sits deep (deeper than Didi if the German is playing) and looks to start every move: long and short. Whereas under Houllier that position was used to stop opposition moves, it's now used as a springboard for our attacks; of course, Xabi's reading of the game allows him to help us ward off threats too.
Fitness issues remain the only concern - Xabi's not a natural athlete (John Toshack, who gave him his debut for Real Sociedad, spoke of how they had to work to make him more nimble), and needs 'resting' more than is ideal - he cannot yet repeat games in a short space of time. However, he's one of those players so sharp mentally that he doesn't need to charge all over the pitch. He can control the pace of a game; it doesn't control him. It's nice to imagine how good he'll be once he's fully acclimatized, and given he's still so young, how good he'll be in a couple of years. He is a big student of the game, and can become a 'manager on the pitch'. Every passing week an ex-Real Madrid legend bemoans how they let him slip through their fingers, and into Rafa's clutches.A- Milan Baros
It amazes me that some people are still far-from convinced about Milan. He's a natural finisher - look at the goals he scored for the Czechs over the summer, and the finishes so far this season: notably at Blackburn, Fulham, Millwall, and at home to Palace and Monaco. Those goals were either down to reacting quickest to the loose ball in the box (Natural Striker Art I), or waiting and watching the keeper before slipping it past him or dinking it over him (Natural Striker Art II). Unlike Van Nistelrooy, who has yet to score for Man U from outside the area, Milan can also score the spectacular as well.
Milan is hungry and sharp around the box, and he does create chances for others: usually pulling the ball back from the byline close to the goal. He is quick and has great control, and is brilliant at running past defenders in tight spaces. Defenders are scared to tackle him, as he always tends to get an extra touch to take him away from them.
Yes, he can be frustrating, and lacks awareness at times, but calling him 'greedy' is silly - any goalscorer worth his salt is greedy; would Fowler and Owen have passed in the box? Meanwhile Rushie returned from Juventus a better all-round player, but a diminished goalscorer. Milan is single-minded, and he takes it upon his shoulders to be the player who scores the goals (Natural Striker Essential Mentality I). He doesn't look to others to do that for the team - he says 'you can put that responsibility on my shoulders'.
Finally, he works so hard - he is on the move for the entire 90 minutes. This season, after he had been elevated to first-choice and main man, we have seen him respond in style. Once he's joint main-man with a player he can play off of, then we'll see even more from him; and at just 23 he has plenty of time to improve his awareness. A- Jamie Carragher
In terms of consistency, A+, as ever. This season, however, the quality of his defending has improved, and his use of the ball from centre back is superb. He's never been able to beat a man and put in a cross, but in his new role he can pick side-foot passes to the midfield; he's even taken to rolling the ball with the sole of his boot. He lacks the kind of blistering pace we could possibly use at the heart of our defence, but he isn't slow either. Notice how he follows any striker he's marking into midfield if that striker drops deep; Carra gives them no time and space to turn. In many ways Carra is similar to John Terry - a no-nonsense player who will give no quarter.
The heart of our defence hasn't been perfect, but it's been pretty tight. We rarely concede more than one goal, but we need some more clean sheets. It could perhaps be improved upon, but it would take a very special player to displace either Sami or Carra, and I'm not sure where we'd find anyone better. He may not be spectacular, but he is hugely efficient, and totally dependable.B+ Luis Garcia
A+ at home, B- away (although two great goals - at Bolton and Middlesborough were wrongly chalked off - and those two added to his West Brom strike would have changed people's opinions a little). I love this little fella - he makes things happen. He's a magnet to goal-mouth action. He just knows what positions to take up, and that's such a crucial thing.
His finishing is poor at times, but it's a joy to see a midfielder getting into the box and into such great positions. Players who don't get into the positions escape criticism, as there is nothing 'apparent' to criticize. Luis G keeps getting in there, and doesn't let a bad miss affect his attitude. He has superb technique, with great feet - and I mean 'feet' - both left and right.
His wife had their first child a couple of months back, and that's always a massive strain on footballers. But the Spaniard always plays with a child-like enthusiasm for the game, and is always the first to congratulate the goalscorer, or if he has notched, the man who set him up. A brilliant addition to the set-up.B+ Neil Mellor
It's hard for me to fault Neil Mellor; he's not the finished article by a long chalk, but he has already done more than I expected. Being a natural finisher is not enough - you need to be able to find time and space against the best defences of the Premiership, in the way you don't have to in the reserves (otherwise every kid who scores goals 'naturally' would make it at the top). Players with pace will find that time and space if they are set through on goal; Mellor has to use his brain and instinct. Five goals in eight games is a great run.
Mellor is one of a series of fringe players (most listed directly below) who have played their way into serious contention; many of them proving that GH wasn't as bad a judge of a player as some people thought - but that he didn't have the ability to get the best out of them.
All of Mellor's five goals this season have been 'crucial' goals. I class crucial goals as any that are scored when you are not already two-goals to the good, or being beaten to the point where it's just a consolation. Scoring the third or fourth when you were already 2-0 up is unlikely to influence the outcome. But scoring the second is often the killer goal, when the opposition lose hope. And of course, the first goal in any game is always the most important. (The winner will always be the most crucial, of course).
All five goals have come at the Kop end, and that's no accident: at home he'll always be more effective, when we are encamped around the opposition area, than away, where we are more likely to have to hit on the counter-attack. It's now up to Mellor to deal with the arrival of a world-class centre forward - if he is not as good as Fernando Morientes, for example, then he cannot expect to play every week; he has to prove that he is. But what Mellor has done, at the very least, is earn himself a future at Liverpool Football Club. It's now down to him as to what he makes of it.B+ Florent Sinama-Pongolle
It's always difficult for new young starlets arriving in a hail of publicity; us fans expect so much, and forget that these players need to develop. Both Pongolle and Le Tallec arrived after two years of waiting, and two years of hype. How could they ever match up to expectations? I tried to remind some people at the start of the season that both were still only 19 (both only turned 20 in October). Occasionally a 19-year-old from these shores will establish himself in the first team, but it's doubly-hard for foreign lads who not only need to adjust to a top flight level of football, but also to a new and exhausting style of play. Last season, Flo was a real livewire, winning up umpteen penalties with his pace but not offering a lot more; this year, after a slow start, he has shown what a brilliant footballer he is starting to become.
With Pongolle, I think we all expected a French Michael Owen: young, quick and diminutive, with a great goalscoring record in youth football. I'd say what we have is closer to another Thierry Henry; Pongolle's control and touch is already light-years ahead of Owen's at this stage (possibly even Owen's at the stage he is now at). I am not saying Pongolle can match Henry, but his style is closer to the mercurial Arsenal man. Like his compatriot, Pongolle looks to pass the ball into the net, and lately that's starting to bear fruit (initially, as with Henry, Flo tended to pass it only to the goalkeeper).
FSP has immaculate control, and blinding pace. Like Henry, Flo doesn't look like a natural finisher at times - neither man being a hardened penalty-box poacher. But if Flo can come anywhere close to getting the number goals Henry does by passing it into the net, we'll be ecstatic. His finishing was a big concern, but as with Henry, and possibly Saha last season, it can take a while to click into place, and suddenly the floodgates open. That may not happen, of course, but I've been heartened by his last two goals: the movement to get on the end of a cross (I read one report saying Flo was standing unmarked to score against West Brom, when in truth he'd run twenty yards to meet the ball).
As with Mellor, Flo's three goals in recent weeks have all been key ones: a high-pressure penalty to keep us in the Carling Cup (and also later to win the tie in the shoot out); the goal that changed the complexion of the Olympiakos match; and now the goal that killed the Baggies off at the Hawthorns. He works hard, and has an infectious enthusiasm. He has made massive strides this season, and a very bright future awaits him.B+ Djimi Traore
Djimi was playing easily the best football of his career until his injury in Monaco. Looked like the complete left back - tall, strong, quick, and was even passing the ball really well. He has one of the best recovery tackles in world football. Since returning in recent games, he's looked a little sloppy and untidy.
His height and pace is a valuable asset to the defence. If he can rediscover - and maintain - his pre-Monaco form, he will be some player; unfortunately he's earned a reputation for being shaky (which most young defenders are), and some people will be very slow to acknowledge any 'coming of age'.
The best bit of non-transfer activity this season was telling Everton to go away.B+ Steve Finnan
Perhaps rarely spectacular, and still yet to show his very best ability in the attacking third (where, as a truly two-footed player, he can deliver telling crosses with left or right foot), he has surprised many with his defensive sturdiness. Not many players have beaten him on their left flank, and that includes Thierry Henry.
He shows that the second season is the one to judge players; the first can be a difficult transition, both in a player's personal life (living in hotels, possibly away from their family) and in adapting to new tactics, new teammates and new expectations (at a bigger club); although perhaps he is also benefiting from the superior coaching and change in tactics. He has earned his place ahead of Josemi, although Rafa seems to favour his compatriot.
Results under Benitez may still be inconsistent, but it's telling that Rafa has not only bought additional quality to the club but - crucially - he has coaxed far better performances from almost a dozen players at the club. Finnan is one of those men.B+ Sami Hyypia
Perhaps not at his very best, with the odd poor game here and there, but to me he remains a pillar at the back. He has set the highest of standards, so he is always going to be judged on what he has done in the past.
Replace Sami with a quick centre half, and we may find ourselves under bombardment in the air again. Remember in 1999, and how it felt to see a centre back of ours head the ball 50 yards out of danger? People need to be wary about replacing one weakness (a lack of pace) with a new player who may bring his own weaknesses; there aren't many perfect defenders in the world, if any.
I honestly believe that if Sami was a new signing at the club this season, people would be raving about him. He no longer has four midfielders sitting deep to protect him, and we no longer defend deep as a team. He will be more exposed than in seasons gone by; and yet how many times has he been made to look a fool? How many mistakes has he made this season? Two? Three? The guy is still hugely reliable. The trouble
is he never gets injured or suspended, so people never get to see how we'd miss him in his absence. To replace Sami Hyypia would take a very special centre back indeed.B+ Didi Hamann
Didi has been phenomenal at times this season; however, he's also been noticeably poor on occasions too. Perhaps that's down to the reshaped midfield, and his altered duties with Alonso now stationed as the deepest midfielder, while Didi has had licence to break up attacks further up the field, and also to get forward - which he has done both brilliantly, and at times ineffectively. The Pompey game was notable for Didi twice missing a chance from inside the six-yard box; unthinkable in seasons gone by. He has been a revelation in a more attacking role, but will never have the dynamism of someone like Steven Gerrard.
Hopefully he will sign a new deal, as you don't want to lose a player of Didi's experience and quality for nothing. We have real quality in the central midfield positions, so Didi is perhaps less crucial to our side than in years gone by. But he gives us more options, and that's what big clubs need. As one of the few older heads in the squad, we should do all we can to hang onto him.B John Arne Riise
Riise will always be a good player, it's just whether he can go on to be a great one; time is still on his side (like Baros and Alonso, he is just 23). He has had some very good games at left back and left midfield, and remains an important - if not essential - player, with Traore and Kewell competing for those two positions. JAR's defending has improved since Rafa's first instruction to him: stop diving in (frankly, it needed saying). His game last season had become about running around like a headless chicken and kicking the ball as far and as hard as was humanly possible, but this season he's using his brain a little more. I honestly felt he'd be surplus to Rafa's requirements, given the long-ball instincts to his game, but he has proven that he can fit in to the new philosophy.
Four goals is a decent return (in his first two seasons he got eight and nine, so he's on target again), and against West Brom he had at least five stunning efforts at goal; the first being the best, in that he cooly passed it into the net, to show he can do 'subtle' too (we knew he could hit the ball at 100mph). He has outstanding stamina, and while not the quickest he can go past people with a turn of pace.
It does annoy me when people write off young defenders; experience is always the crucial thing at the back, as so much of it is about reading the game. Rarely will you find a reliable defender under the age of 25.B Stephen Warnock
Started the season very well, but had disappeared from the scene until his substitute appearance at the Hawthorns. Consistently maintaining form is the hardest thing for young player; he started by putting every ounce of energy into his game, and you can't keep doing that without hitting a wall at some stage. What Stephen has done is prove he is capable of doing a job in the first team; unthinkable to some over the summer. But it's interesting that while Rafa was heralded for throwing in the homegrown kids, only Mellor, who had his first handful of games under GH, is now regularly in the 16 on matchdays, and his emergence has been largely down to an injury crisis and Owen's departure.
To me, this backs up what GH felt - that there aren't many outstanding home-grown players close to the first team. Otsemobor looks surplus to requirements under Rafa (and yet GH gave him six games), and Welsh is still no closer to breaking through. Potter, Raven and Whitbread all look like they have bright futures, but all three are at least a year or two from making a proper breakthrough. Rafa has inherited a lot of very decent young lads, but few superstars in the making; as soon as Houllier took sole control at Liverpool he instantly gave Gerrard his debut. Rafa has no-one of that quality coming through.
The encouraging thing has been how Rafa has formed a team with these kids to take the club to the brink of a cup final. As for Warnock, like Mellor he has shown that he has what it takes to play top-level football. Whether he can stay at the very top of the Premiership scene remains to be seen. But he has undoubtedly been a bonus this season.B Igor Biscan
A joke figure to many, cult hero to others, who has emerged from the shadows - making a real impression before injury struck. (Nearly all our injuries have been to our best players, or our players who were in their best form). Igor (pronounced EEEEEGGGGGOOOOOOORRRRRRR) has everything it takes to be a top central midfielder: pace, skill, athleticism, height, passing ability; he just needs to score more goals. His performances away at Millwall and Deportivo were two Steven Gerrard would have been proud of. Biscan is great at striding upfield with the ball, and it's a miraculous what difference a bit of confidence can make.
I liked him at centre back, but he made too many mistakes; it wasn't his natural position. I am also on record from 2000/01 as saying I thought Biscan was hopeless and useless (despite his first few games for the club), and I learned a lesson in not writing players off.
What Igor needs to do now is find some consistency, and that's never easy when you're only in the team every now and then. Benitez clearly rates him, but seems to prefer Hamann as the third-choice central midfielder. I like the big Croat's attitude: has hasn't moaned, simply knuckled down and fought hard when in the side. Should Gerrard depart (and who knows if he will?), we may see Igor grow in stature in the way Milan Baros has in Owen's absence. Igor may never be as good as Gerrard, of course, but hopefully he can become hugely effective.B Djibril Cisse
Struggled at times to adjust to the ferocity of the game over here, but Djibril was starting to show signs of truly terrifying pace - playing up front or switching to the right wing (an effective tactic Rafa started to use) - when he befell a truly terrifying injury. He later admitted he came close to losing his leg. He now has to sit back - to watch and learn while he recuperates. What it will give him is perspective, and humility; while appearing a gregarious character, he is apparently a really decent guy, and this will help ward off any 'superstar' antics (he did seem a bit petulant on the pitch). For the rest of his career he will know how fortunate he is to still have two legs, let alone be back playing again (as looks possible).
Next season we will hopefully see the best of Cisse, as the pressure will be less intense: new signings with a big price tag will always be in the spotlight. Come the summer he'll speak better English, be more settled in his personal life, and champing at the bit to get back in the fray. B- Harry Kewell
I felt Harry started the season in better form than many others were prepared to admit, but that decent form quickly ebbed away to the point where his confidence was non-existent, and he had a succession of truly awful matches. To his credit, he has kept working hard, and it shows his quality (and pride) as a player that he approached Rafa for help in rediscovering his form. Fitness issues regarding injuries were addressed.
He works harder for the team than some people care to admit, and makes some good tackles. Thankfully the quality is slowly coming back into his game. He has started to have key roles in the goals we've been scoring.
The best players play well in at least eight of every ten games. But they tend to be in the best sides; it's very very hard to get that kind of consistency in an inconsistent side - sometimes you will not be involved as your teammates can't find you with the ball. As the team improves, so will Harry.
As I've been saying all season: even at his worst, judge him as a passing player in a passing team. Has there been a better pass this season than his assist for Baros against Newcastle? B- Antonio Nunez
I may be in a minority, but I like the look of this fella (admittedly on very limited evidence so far).
To me he seems a really good all-round player - a proper 'footballer' with no weaknesses in his game; but perhaps with no eye-catching or jaw-dropping strengths either. At West Brom he started to show signs of the pace Rafa mentioned, but which had been missing in early games, given he lacked match-fitness. For anyone to write off an overseas player when that man is also playing catch-up fitness-wise is not being fair; even the best players struggle to adapt over here, and while Nunez may not be up there with the best, he still deserves time to show his
I like Nunez's first touch, and when not in possession he is always looking to make tackles and interceptions. He's a big lad, and brilliant in the air - two thumping headers of his have changed games: the one against Olympiakos led to Mellor scoring, and then to Contra rebelling and being sent of for handball at West Brom - almost certainly denying the Spaniard his first goal.
I'm not sure Nunez has any amazing skill or tricks to blind defenders, but once he gets sharper he'll find it easier to beat defenders with a drop of the shoulder and a turn of pace; against West Brom he also showed that he is a good crosser of the ball. Overall a very good footballer, with a well-rounded game, but not someone who'll win games single-handedly or ever be a superstar. He is a man who can do a number of jobs well, and as such a valuable addition to the squad. And I don't care what anyone says, you don't hang around at Real Madrid for a few years without talent. Despite his years he still doesn't have a lot of experience, and so playing games can only benefit him.B- Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland
Neither of our goalkeepers have made what I would call 'howlers' since the first home game, but both have been shaky, and both have conceded goals they might otherwise have dealt comfortably with. Dudek doesn't command his area, and Kirkland has conceded soft goals from not being able to see the striking of the ball.
Perhaps a lack of clarity over who is first choice doesn't help. I will never forget Souness rotating James, Grobelaar and Hooper after every mistake, and all three ended up as nervous wrecks; ideally you have a clear-cut no.1 and a very promising young replacement (or 'steady Eddie') as back-up, who is prepared to bide his time; a man who is happy to spend a few seasons on the bench (see Ogrizovich, Boulder and Hooper).
Jerzy will never again find the form of 2001/02 as the mistakes he made two years ago will haunt him for the rest of his career. Also, Kirkland needs to stay fit for a season before we can start to trust him (although his growing pains should in time become less of an issue). Both are superb in many ways, but I'd plump for Kirkland as first choice as he has fifteen years at the top ahead of him, and unlike Dudek, is still at a young age with lots of improvement left in him.C Josemi
Looked a very good player in pre-season and the early weeks of the Premiership, but has trailed off to the point where most fans are despairing of him. It seems to me like he is trying too hard to make an impression - flying into thundering tackles where he need only jockey; trying hard but not using his head.
He's like a heat-seeking missile, attracted to the football, and finding himself drawn out of position. At times he has also looked exhausted, and that's not unusual for imported players in the early stage of their Premiership careers. Enough players have this season emerged from dodgy starts to their Anfield careers; hopefully Josemi do likewise. C- Salif Diao
I do find it hard to say anything good about Salif Diao. But I'll start with the few things I can muster: he's apparently a smashing bloke, who is great in the dressing room when it comes to helping team morale (not sure if his inclusion in the team itself has a similar affect on team morale...). He tries his hardest. He is tall, strong, athletic. Unfortunately, he just doesn't look like a footballer. His game is purely destructive; against Everton he won lots of tackles, but it was always in an over-forceful manner that led to conceding possession (much like his passing). The best midfielders win tackles and emerge with the ball.
To me, he looks like someone perfect for a struggling Premiership side, where grafters without ability can find a role. The Rest of the Squad
Other players have appeared mostly in the Carling Cup, but Darren Potter has done well to be blooded in the Champions League; he's a talented lad, but the games have passed him by a little when stuck out on the wing. David Raven shows huge promise, John Welsh is still a talented player, Richie Partridge emerged from a four-year hiatus, but perhaps the most impressive has been Zak Whitbread, who looks very commanding at the back.
Stephane Henchoz has possibly played his last game for the club, and I think that's fair enough, given his style of defending is based on dropping deeper than a team like Liverpool should; but he served the club brilliantly in his first few seasons. The Manager - Rafael Benitez
I won't give Rafa a mark, as it's far harder to fully judge a manager: players you can assess (although it can still appear fairly meaningless to score them, but I have all the same) - but a manager's influence is far more subtle. Of course, you can tell quite a lot about a manager's performance, but unlike those of the players, much of it is hidden; it takes place in his office, on the training ground, and in the dug out.
You can send on subs who score within seconds (Pongolle and Mellor against Olympiakos) and be a genius; take off a player (Hamann at Goodison) and concede seconds later and be an idiot. The fact is substitutions can go either way, no matter who you are.
How much of Owen leaving was down to Benitez? Almost certainly nothing. Did he try to sign a quality replacement in Morientes at the time? Yes - but the striker had given his word to Madrid's then-manager that he'd stay. Has Benitez bought well? I think we can give a massive thumbs-up to Alonso and Luis Garcia, while the jury is out on the other two. However, let's also not forget all the poor signings Wenger and Ferguson have made - the list is long. But the best managers sign players who improve the first team - who make a difference - and Benitez has done that.
Tactically we are in far better shape - even sour-faced Mark Lawrenson admits we're more exciting and offense-minded. I love the way Rafa uses wingers, and had those wingers hug the touchline against Newcastle so we could draw their full-backs away from their dodgy centre-halves. There's an adaptability that had been missing in recent seasons. He has tried 4-5-1, and had great success with it; other times it fell short, although I still feel five attacking midfielders and a striker should be enough to create and score loads of goals. 4-4-2 has been similarly hit-and-miss, but we need to make sure we have a striker who can drop deep or 'go long' for flick-ons, and Morientes fits the bill; let's hope he arrives.
We've managed to become more attacking without leaking too many goals at the back - more clean sheets remains the aim, of course. Our football has been a joy to watch at times, and yet it's still early days - or rather, early in the first day: a new dawn for a new regime. It takes time to organize and blend the elements of cohesive football - and we've had to try to do so why the manager has still been assessing his players, and learning about the opposition. Meanwhile, all the teams in the top eight, bar Arsenal, have to come to Anfield; all of our tough away trips, bar Highbury, are behind us.
There will be setbacks, but given the injuries to key personnel, and all the new players settling in (plus some ludicrous refereeing decisions - so bad that fact needs highlighting), we've done remarkably well; within touching distance of fourth, and in the semis of the Carling Cup, and - gloriously - the last 16 in Europe. Injuries and rotation have meant we'll have plenty of fresh legs in the second half of the season.© Paul Tomkins 2004
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