From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.01 :: Jan. 03, 2009

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FOOTBALL / ENGLISH PREMIERSHIP

Gerrard on song

On a day when Steven Gerrard scored twice and created two further goals, some of Liverpool’s football was as mesmerising as much that Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea can offer, writes Louise Taylor.

Critics of Liverpool claim Rafael Benitez’s side are too cautious to be worthy champions but Newcastle United certainly succeeded in unlocking their inner extrovert.

When it became apparent that Benitez was fielding Dirk Kuyt as a lone striker and leaving Robbie Keane and Xabi Alonso on a bench still lacking Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s manager once again appeared guilty of frustrating tactical conservatism. In this case, though, appearances proved hugely deceptive. Granted it appeared somewhat mean not to offer an increasingly pensive looking Keane even a late cameo but generally Liverpool played with a refreshing, rarely seen freedom. Improvising at will, they had been encouraged into dropping their customary guard by the ineptitude of an injury-debilitated Newcastle side who proved incapable of coping with the outstanding Steven Gerrard’s deployment in a free role behind Kuyt.

Gerrard is one Liverpool player who invariably passes and moves with a swagger in his step but here he lifted team-mates, including the hitherto unsung Lucas, to a whole new level and duly departed to an ovation from the Newcastle fans. Fabio Capello may have recently told an Italian publication that Liverpool were the least attractive of England’s Champions League sides but on a day when Gerrard scored twice and created two further goals, some of their football was as mesmerising as much that Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea can offer.

Consistently thinking a good second quicker and moving half a yard faster than Newcastle, a Liverpool formation apparently built for sneaking an odd goal and possible securing an away win on the counter-attack instead morphed into exhibition mode.

Yet before this is hailed as a watershed in a Merseyside campaign conducted largely without Torres, it should be stressed that Newcastle comprehensively failed to rise to the occasion on a day when Fabricio Coloccini and Danny Guthrie particularly looked out of their depth.

“We feel we have it in us to be title winners,” said Sammy Lee, standing in for Benitez as the Spaniard continues his recovery from kidney stones.

Accordingly Lee wore the air of man whose sometimes baffling ideas have suddenly been vindicated. “We’ve been criticised for playing certain teams at times but it’s a squad game,” he said. “We plan to win every game, we always plan to score goals, it’s just that it doesn’t always work out.”

The only puzzle was how it took Liverpool more than 30 minutes to score. Newcastle’s defence had been playing as if mounting a four-man go-slow in protest at Mike Ashley’s decision not to sell up and, but for Shay Given’s heroics, could have been six down before Gerrard broke the deadlock. Already revelling in that free role behind the intelligent, industrious Dirk Kuyt and benefiting from the Dutchman’s selfless flicks and decoy runs, the imperious England midfielder finally gave his side a deserved lead, lashing Yossi Benayoun’s low centre in off a post.

The premable said much about Newcastle’s failings, Javier Mascherano all too easily picking out Benayoun as the Israeli surged forward, unimpeded. Admittedly the marking was slightly better when Sami Hyypia headed a Gerrard corner beyond Given but, whereas Hyypia leapt for that header, Coloccini’s feet failed to leave the ground.

Things were becoming so embarrassingly one-sided that Liverpool generously switched off as Guthrie swung in a corner right-footed and David Edgar — otherwise terrorised by Ryan Babel — thumped a header past Jose Reina.

It proved yet another false Geordie dawn. Indeed, despite the fact that most of Joe Kinnear’s team were camped along the goalline, Babel somehow forced a rebound from another Gerrard corner across it early in the second period.

Watching from the stand, the normally ultra-focussed Benitez proved sufficiently relaxed to remove his headset, temporarily break off communications with Lee down in the technical area and pose for photographs with a Liverpool-supporting mother and daughter. Benitez even managed a smile for his old Anfield political enemy Rick Parry when Lucas conjured Gerrard’s second with the pass of the game from near the halfway line.

Connecting with the Brazilian’s dispatch, Gerrard’s advance proved far too powerful for Coloccini to resist and Liverpool’s captain duly enticed Given — a ’keeper who generally prefers to stay on his line — out into his area before delicately chipping the ball over him with the most adroit of right-foot finishes. Soon afterwards Gerrard was withdrawn but there was still time for Xabi Alonso, on for Benayoun, to convert the penalty earned following Edgar’s trip on David Ngog.

“Liverpool were different class, we were threadbare but they played some very attractive football,” said a magnanimous Kinnear. “And Gerrard was magnificent; that’s the best individual performance I’ve seen in a long time.”


THE RESULTS

December 28: Arsenal 1 (Gallas 81) bt Portsmouth 0. Half-time: 0-0; Blackburn 2 (McCarthy 45+1, Roberts 84) drew with Manchester City 2 (Sturridge 88, Robinho 90+4). Half-time: 1-0; Bolton 0 lost to Wigan 1 (Zaki pen-44). Half-time: 0-1; Everton 3 (Arteta 10 & 27, Gosling 83) bt Sunderland 0. Half-time: 2-0; Fulham 2 (Dempsey 10 & 89) drew with Chelsea 2 (Lampard 50 & 72). Half-time: 1-0; Newcastle 1 (Edgar 45+2) lost to Liverpool 5 (Gerrard 31 & 66, Hyypia 36, Babel 50, Alonso pen-77). Half-time: 1-2; West Brom 2 (Bednar 83, Beattie 90+4) bt Tottenham 0. Half-time: 0-0; West Ham 2 (Cole 51, Tristan 88) bt Stoke 1 (Ab Faye 4). Half-time: 0-1.

December 26: Aston Villa 2 (Barry pen-65, Knight 90+2) drew with Arsenal 2 (Denilson 40, Diaby 49). Half-time: 0-1; Chelsea 2 (Drogba 3, Lampard 45+2) bt West Brom 0. Half-time: 2-0; Liverpool 3 (Riera 26, Keane 53 & 58) bt Bolton 0. Half-time: 1-0; Manchester City 5 (Caicedo 15 & 27, Robinho 28 & 36, Ireland 82) bt Hull 1 (Fagan 80). Half-time: 4-0; Middlesbrough 0 lost to Everton 1 (Cahill 51). Half-time: 0-0; Portsmouth 1 (Belhadj 8) lost to West Ham 4 (Collison 20, Cole 67, Bellamy 70 & 83). Half-time: 1-1; Stoke 0 lost to Manchester United 1 (Tevez 83). Half-time: 0-0; Sunderland 0 drew with Blackburn 0; Tottenham 0 drew with Fulham 0; Wigan 2 (Taylor 29, Zaki pen-73) bt Newcastle 1 (Guthrie pen-88). Half-time: 1-0.

December 22: Everton 0 drew with Chelsea 0.

December 21: Arsenal 1 (Van Persie 24) drew with Liverpool 1 (Keane 42). Half-time: 1-1; Newcastle 2 (N’Zogbia 12, Duff 90) bt Tottenham 1 (Modric 29). Half-time: 1-1; West Brom 2 (Moore 69, Bednar 90+3) bt Manchester City 1 (Carson o.g. 86). Half-time: 0-0.

December 20: Blackburn 3 (McCarthy pen-9 & 27, Roberts 18) bt Stoke 0. Half-time: 3-0; Bolton 2 (Taylor 1, Gardner 3) bt Portsmouth 1 (Crouch 20). Half-time: 2-1; Fulham 3 (Bullard 41, Murphy pen-54, Dempsey 59) bt Middlesbrough 0. Half-time: 1-0; Hull 1 (Barmby 19) lost to Sunderland 4 (Malbranque 10, Zayatte o.g. 78, Jones 84, Cisse 90+1). Half-time: 1-1; West Ham 0 lost to Aston Villa 1 (Neill o.g. 78). Half-time: 0-0.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008



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