Gerrard's trick a treat for Hodgson
Where there is Steven Gerrard, there is always hope. Liverpool's talisman proved the hat-trick hero in the Europa League last night, coming on to rescue his beloved club who had been given the run-around by Napoli in the first half.
Ill-will had seeped into this contest, an unwanted relic of unpleasant events in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius a fortnight ago. Problems with crowd segregation were witnessed even before Ezequiel Lavezzi's 25th-minute strike. Police and stewards had already been forced to calm tempers in the corner of the Main Stand and Anfield Road End.
This was hardly the scenario desired by the new owner, John W Henry, who had just taken up his seat with his wife and his new director of football strategy, Damien Comolli. The strictures of the stadium and the weakness of the squad were laid bare for all to see.
They walked into a febrile atmosphere. The stabbings of Liverpool fans in Naples prompted a range of banners on the Kop, including 'Napoli Merda', and a verdict on the sanitation problems: 'Usate Acqua E Sapone' ('Use Water And Soap'). "Go back to Italy'' chanted the Kop as Lavezzi and company ran out. Until Liverpool raised their tempo with Gerrard's arrival at the break, the noise was emanating mostly from the Italian quarter. Set up in 3-4-2-1 fashion, Napoli were always dangerous on the counter-attack, frequently hitting diagonal balls to catch out Hodgson's full-backs, Glen Johnson and Paul Konchesky.
Edinson Cavani led Napoli's line but it was the movement behind of him Marek Hamsik and particularly Lavezzi that was impressive. When Lavezzi looked to have found Hamsik inside the box, Jamie Carragher stepped in to still the nerves. Cavani, the talented Uruguayan, then beat Liverpool's offside trap but shot wide.
Liverpool briefly settled midway through the half, Johnson nicking the ball behind Lavezzi and running down the right. Johnson played the ball inside to the hard-working Ngog, who turned and tested Morgan De Sanctis.
But soon the initiative, and the lead, lay with the quick-witted men from Serie A. Napoli were assisted by Liverpool mistakes. Jonjo Shelvey, raw and rangy, giving only hints of his undoubted promise, lost the ball to Lavezzi, who fired wide.
Christian Poulsen's uncertainty then gifted possession to Cavani. The Napoli striker headed into the path of Lavezzi and Liverpool were ripped to pieces.
Lavezzi sprinted through the middle and calmly placed his shot past Pepe Reina. Continuing his run, Lavezzi leapt onto the advertising hoardings and, showing impressive balance, stretched out his arms to his fans. Some even put down their banner of 'Happy Birthday Diego' to join in the wild celebrations.
Liverpool briefly stirred, Johnson's drive was held by De Sanctis. But they lacked a leader. The visiting tifosi raised a new banner at the break 'Anfield Road -- Nothing Scary.'
Then came Gerrard. Suddenly Hodgson's side looked a more cohesive force. Raul Meireles took the departing Milan Jovanovic's place on the left, allowing Gerrard to slot in behind Ngog. Shelvey drilled in a cross that Ngog connected well with but aimed too close to De Sanctis. As the ball fell loose, Gerrard was swiftest to react but his sights were not properly set. Liverpool continued to create chances and Shelvey should have scored when meeting Ngog's cross just before the hour. Hodgson twisted again, bringing on Nathan Eccleston for Poulsen as the Kop chanted "attack, attack, attack''. The departure of Poulsen was greeted with delight by large swathes of the Liverpool support.
The home side almost equalised following good work by Gerrard and then Ngog when the ball fell invitingly enough for Meireles, but he shot wide. The game began to become stretched and combative. Jay Spearing thundered into a couple of magnificent tackles.
With 20 minutes remaining, Gerrard was presented with a free-kick just outside the 'D'. Anfield stood hopefully. Gerrard hit the ball firmly, imparting enough bend to negotiate the wall but insufficient to carry it the right side of the post.
No matter. Liverpool's regular saviour came to the rescue again. It had to be Gerrard, the embodiment of Liverpool passion. When Shelvey drove into the box, Andrea Dossena nipped in to slide the ball towards De Sanctis. Dossena rarely did much right at Anfield during his career here, so an element of haplessness was perhaps predictable. Dossena had not spotted Gerrard, who poked the ball past De Sanctis.
Gerrard refused to settle for a point. When Johnson was brought down by a clumsy challenge from Aronica, Gerrard drilled in the penalty. There was more, magnificently so. With two minutes left, Gerrard raced through and dinked over De Sanctis. Unbelievable. (© Daily Telegraph, London)