Liverpool 3 Napoli 1: Demigod Gerrard Papers Over Gaping Cracks

Posted by Garstonite on November 5, 2010, 12:39:32 AM

The matchday programme reminded its readers that one year ago to the day, Liverpool drew 1-1 against Lyon. A result that put Liverpool out of the Champions League at the group stage. As I watched today’s game develop, I couldn’t help but think that the image of Lisandro Lopez firing past Pepe Reina to salvage a point for the French outfit at the Stade de Gerland was a more iconic one than we realised at the time.

It was only my second European game of the season and the bizarre Europa League music and orange mat that covered the centre-circle were an abomination to the seasoned eyes and ears. As snobbish as it sounds, you can’t help but feel like the Queen sat in a McDonald’s drive-thru.

I took my seat in the Main Stand. Block MC. Unfamiliar territory. If there had been any trouble in the streets before the game, then it had past me by. I looked longingly over to The Kop and specifically the area of my season ticket seat like a dog banished from his own home. The planned “gathering” had switched to over down towards the Napoli fans and it was too late for me to move.

If this is a competition that few of us are taking seriously – including Hodgson given his team selections – then this meant the world to the travelling Napoli fans. The Anfield Rd End was invaded tonight. Banners, co-ordinated chants and movement. There was a part of many of us that wished that we were in amongst the chaos, I’m sure. Many of their fans were seen dotted around the Main Stand. Most kept their head down.

The Kop’s humour was back to its best and most dry though. An image of Oscar the Grouch was held aloft with “Ciao Napoli” written above it and another held up at the back which read “Usate Aqua E Sapone” which translates to “Use water and soap”.

The ground may have been short of a full house but the off-field sub-plot had the crowd right up for this. Which leads me on to today’s line-ups.

On the back of successive victories against Bolton and Blackburn, Hodgson decided to shuffle his proverbial pack with one eye on the visit of Chelsea this Sunday. Pepe Reina started in goal, Glen Johnson returned at right-back with Kyrgiakos, Carragher and Konchesky making up the rest of the backline. In midfield, Poulsen returned alongside Spearing and in front of them Meireles, Shelvey and Jovanovic supported David N’gog in the lone striker role. A 4-2-3-1 fomation.

For Napoli, De Sanctis in goal, Aronica, Pazienza, Cannavaro, Campagnaro, Dossena, Maggio, Hamsik, Gargano, Cavani, Lavezzi. A 5-3-2/3-4-1-2; very flexible.

The matched ebbed and flowed from the first whistle. A fortnight ago, the under-strength side that went to Naples and came away with a well-fought 0-0 was quite rightly praised. Weekly scapegoat Christian Poulsen was even given MOTM in the Echo. But the onus was never on us in Italy. Today the crowd wanted and expected not only three points, but a performance on top of it.

The midfield duo of Jay Spearing and Christian Poulsen, along with the back two pairing of Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Jamie Carragher set the tone for the rest of the side: pedestrian and wasteful in possession. Prisoner of Wars put in less graft than our lone striker has to. The midfield was only their in spirit for most of the first forty five. It was like a game of table football. You can just picture any our back four spinning wildly before making a lucky connection with the ball that puts it anywhere but the strikers feet. Sitting bang centre in the middle of the Main Stand, it was like Wimbledon. The tennis tournament that is. The ball flying from one end of the pitch to the other. I turned round expecting to see Cliff Richard with a punnet of strawberries and cream.

I know we hark back to it far too often but just how spoiled were we with Xabi Alonso? The metronome. The man that made playing through midfield an art form. If every time he made a connection with the ball was like a painter sweeping his brush across a canvas, Spearing and Poulsen are like two pre-schoolers dipping potatoes in puddles of acrylic, pushing them aimlessly on to pieces of paper. Spearing’s willingness was admirable, but his and Poulsen’s distribution was tragic.

The ‘front four’ on offer from the start actually have potential, but there is little use in them unless they are getting service. It’s like building a flat from the top floor downwards.

If one of the attributes that Poulsen brings to the table is experience, then he clearly hasn’t learned the skill of judging a ball coming down from the air. His attempted header on the half hour mark was like a late tribute to Norman Wisdom. Cavani latched on to his error by sending Lavezzi through with a very cleverly weighted header. The young Argentine ran on to the ball and found the back of the net on what was the birthday of his country’s hero Diego Maradona. An anniversary the travelling supporters were keen to let the rest of us know about.

Liverpool failed to muster a response before the break and we went in 0-1 down. It had been Napoli who had taken the initiative in the first half, so you couldn’t argue with the score.

As fans stretched their legs and relieved their bladders, the decision was made to send out Gerrard on to the pitch to warm up. Undoubtedly, our Huyton-born skipper is a certified Liverpool legend. But the response from the crowd towards him doesn’t sit right with me. Mentioning his name opens a can of worms I know, but one thing I don’t think anybody can deny Benitez did that was for the good of Liverpool FC was try to curve the influence of Steven Gerrard. He was just another player. If he wanted him to play right midfield, he played right midfield. If he didn’t want him to play, he didn’t play. He may well be our most gifted footballer, but I don’t think the Mr Liverpool tag that he has regained is healthy. From every stretch on the sideline to every touch of the ball, the crowd responds like a gang of Japanese schoolgirls. And OK, I might be a miserable bastard, but I just find it incredibly cringeworthy.

The game kicked off for the second half and Gerrard, straight away, did look a cut above, it must be said. Not just from our set of players either. Napoli may have dominated the first half and they do have some class acts in their side like Hamsik, Cavani and Lavezzi, but make no mistake, this was not a good side. They lead at half time through default only.

The atmosphere than the arrival of Gerrard brought died down quickly. He settled into the game well, but the problem remained the same. Gerrard had tucked into the front four. His introduction saw Meireles shifted out to the left and Shelvey on the right. Roy Hodgson was clearly never given that kid’s toy with the blocks when he was growing up. Or if he did he must have spent most of his time trying to shove the star through the triangular hole. Meanwhile, Spearing and Poulsen would struggle to have passed wind in the middle of the park.

The change in the centre of the park finally occurred. Thank Christ. Christian Poulsen was pulled off (snigger) and Nathan Ecclestone came on. He brought an enthusiasm that the side lacked, winning a free-kick that Gerrard sent wide.

Gerrard was now in the centre of the park alongside Spearing, evoking the never-ending and ever-tiresome debate of where his best position is. I’ve made my position on the matter clear in the past. In my mind, a Steven Gerrard without any defensive burden is a Steven Gerrard that can elevate a good side into a great one. With that said, his distribution made a mockery of others in that position. About thirty seconds of having moved into the middle, he spread a ball over to Meireles, the defender failed to deal with the ball and Liverpool created their best chance of the game. First from N’gog and then from Gerrard coming in from deep, ballooning the ball from a position we’ve seen him burst the net from.

People will point to his performance tonight on why he is best from the middle, but he was put there at a time Napoli were showing absolutely no ambition. He had no defensive responsibility, as demonstrated when he chased the ball down from Napoli ‘keeper De Sanctis and challenged the ball into the back of the net. The goal was 90% determination, 10% luck. 1-1.

From there, Napoli began to fold. Liverpool could smell blood. Raul Meireles, coming in from the right, swept the ball to the overlapping Glen Johnson. He made the most of a bad touch and drew a bad challenge from Aronica, who was very lucky to be on the pitch after a dreadful tackle on N’gog. Steven Gerrard stepped up and made no mistake. 2-1. The game had been turned on its head.

Napoli at this point looked out of gas and Lucas – on for N’gog – did brilliantly to win a 50-50 challenge that sent Gerrard on goal. He advance on the keeper and lobbed him with expertise. A 15 minute hat-trick and another psalm in The Book of Gerrard.

A good win but one that really only tells half the story. I know results are what matter in football but I can’t help but think the last three games are veneers masking a very crooked smile.

I don’t know what left the sourest taste looking back. The bloke reading The Guardian a few rows in front of me? The rendition of “You’re Not Singing Anymore” directed towards the Napoli fans? You’ll Never Walk Alone over the tannoy at the end of the game as if this victory meant anything other than three points? No, I think the worst of it was the cheers for Lech Poznan’s victory over Man City. Our standards have shifted. John W Henry was in attendance today with his wife and I just hope he hasn’t been blinded by results. Gareth Bale-mania may well be being overstated by the media, but it’s sad that Tottenham and Manchester City are now the hurdles we must overcome. Because their second string sides show how far we are away.

MOTM? Take a guess.

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