Reds content to stifle Sparta
Sparta Prague 0
Published 18/02/2011 | 05:00
For 9,394 days, Kenny Dalglish has waited for the moment when he was able to lead Liverpool in Europe. His debut, when it finally came, will not take nearly that long to forget.
After 90 minutes of function rather than fantasy, the Scot would be forgiven for wondering whether perhaps pleasures are greatest in anticipation.
The Liverpool manager will console himself, of course, that while a goalless draw with Sparta Prague will hardly endure in the memory, the result improved his team's chances of enduring in the Europa League by no small margin. They may not have been electric, but on nights such as this, being effective is of paramount importance.
This was a performance of control, rather than power, from Liverpool. The 10-week hibernation afforded to teams in Eastern Europe ensured Sparta began with boundless energy, the Czech side clearly straining at the leash for competitive action.
It was the hallmark of those sides Dalglish graced as a player that, when presented with hostile territory far from home, the first priority was always to stifle the hosts' enthusiasm. It is a dogma that has evidently not left him.
Each time Sparta surrendered the ball, Liverpool appeared in no rush to charge into their opponents' half. Raul Meireles, Lucas and, prior to his premature removal, Fabio Aurelio, were more interested in retaining possession than posing problems.
The Czech champions, though, were in no mood to allow their illustrious guests a straightforward evening. Glen Johnson, restored to the right-back role he fills for England after a stretch on the left, found himself tormented by the intelligent interchanges of Vaclav Kadlec and the impressive Manuel Pamic.
It was the latter who drew the first save from Pepe Reina, bursting into the box and fizzing an effort across the face of goal, though it was a more familiar face who spurned the best chance of the opening period.
Marek Matejovsky scored a thunderbolt at Anfield during his spell with Reading in 2007; only the falling form of Sotirios Kyrgiakos -- a considerable obstacle -- prevented the Czech international turning a one-off into a hex after Ondrej Kusnir slalomed into the penalty area, as much by accident as by design.
Dalglish's side, by contrast, offered little; it took Aurelio 29 minutes to produce Liverpool's first shot on goal, a volley which bounced harmlessly and substantially wide.
Tomas Repka, a veteran while with West Ham almost a decade ago, now presumably playing thanks to the grant of a preservation order, marshalled David Ngog with ease. The Frenchman's frustration bubbled over just before the interval after the sort of sly exchange Repka has long made his speciality.
Both were booked for their trouble after a spat over whether the ball had run for a corner or a goal-kick. It was the longest Liverpool had spent in Sparta's penalty area.
There was little for those travelling fans crammed into a corner of this bijou stadium to cheer. That some had been charged £154 for a ticket -- the subject of a complaint from Liverpool to Uefa which European football's governing body has, unsurprisingly, not yet responded to -- will hardly have improved their mood. This may have been a little piece of history. That did not mean it would be interesting.
Their hope had been, of course, that they would be able at least to bear witness to another landmark moment in Anfield's annals, the appearance of Raheem Sterling, the winger who would have become the club's youngest ever player had he featured here.
He was on the plane, thanks to his half-term break, but not in Dalglish's squad.
Even Liverpudlian Conor Coady -- the one jewel in the Reds' youth-team crown who actually did make the bench -- did not appear. This was not the sort of game for misty-eyed sentimentality; nor was it an occasion for flights of fancy.
Though they tired, Sparta were much too dangerous for that. Leony Kweuke, the hosts' rangy striker, headed wide just after the break, a timely reminder of the peril Liverpool would face should their focus drop; after a short delay to allow the smoke from a flare to clear, the cordite still in the air, the Cameroonian clipped an effort straight at Reina.
Matejovsky was not finished, either, sending a 25-yard mortar whistling past the post, his feat matched just as menacingly by Kamil Vacek as Dalglish began to bite his frostbitten fingernails.
This debut would not, though, be ruined. Dalglish apart, it will not be remembered, either. (© Daily Telegraph, London)