Ngog brace gets Hodgson reign off to flying start
ROY Hodgson may still have mountains to climb in his first summer and first season at Liverpool, but at least he has cleared the molehill. A comfortable victory against FK Rabotnicki hardly warrants a place in Liverpool legend, but all that matters is that the club's new manager did not begin his reign by entering the annals of shame.
Perhaps it was that prospect, the knowledge that this was a game in which a win was no sort of triumph but a defeat would be the end of the world, that made Hodgson so downbeat on the eve of his debut as Anfield manager.
He had little reason to worry. Two strikes from David Ngog were more than enough to see off their willing, but limited, opponents in a confident, assured manner.
Hodgson can now turn his attentions to rather more taxing matters, on and off the field. He must secure the faith of Fernando Torres, if he has not already, attract new signings and begin to impose his vision on his new club. All are likely to require rather more effort than this.
This was never likely to be a particularly educational evening as to the shape Hodgson's Liverpool will take. Some 11 players were missing, thanks to the extended leave of absence granted to the club's World Cup contingent, while the 62-year-old will be hopeful of adding several new faces to his squad between now and the start of the season proper with the visit of Arsenal on August 15.
In their stead came three youth team graduates -- Martin Kelly, Jay Spearing and David Amoo. Although they acquitted themselves well enough, they are unlikely to feature in his plans regularly this season. Also starting were a new signing, Milan Jovanovic, still attempting to gel with his team-mates and two players, and Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Diego Cavalieri, who Hodgson will hope to move on in the coming days.
Hardly the sort of line-up on which it would be fair to base an assessment of the former Fulham manager's plan, especially against opponents who posed so few problems. Rabotnicki, as is expected of Balkan sides, were dogged and technically accomplished, but all that could be achieved here was avoiding embarrassment. There was no scope for a statement of intent.
Not that the game was entirely devoid of meaning for the new Liverpool manager. He will never again underestimate the hatred Macedonians reserve for Greeks, for one, such was the cacophony of vitriol poured upon Kyrgiakos' every touch. He will know he has to practise corners, too, so many did Jovanovic and Alberto Aquilani waste.
More importantly, he will have been heartened by the display of Lucas Leiva, handed the captaincy for the evening, who offered further evidence that he is maturing into a composed central midfielder, and by the coltish enthusiasm of Ngog.
Hodgson had been keen to dismiss the idea that this game was a training exercise, but it is fair to suggest it was a scouting one, an occasion on which he could gauge the depth of the resources available to him. Both Lucas and Ngog made a fine first impression.
It was the Frenchman who opened the scoring, settling Liverpool's nerves, helping a scratch side discover a degree of familiarity. Lucas quickly took a free-kick just inside the visitors' half, catching Rabotnicki's defence cold. Egzon Belica misjudged the bounce of the ball, Martin Bogatinov mistimed his run, and Ngog lifted the ball over the goalkeeper and tapped into an empty net.
It was a goal that summed up Liverpool's night. They did not excel -- though they should not be chastised for that -- and it would be premature to suggest there was any great proof of Hodgson's influence. This was simply one team seeing off inferior opponents in as efficient a manner as possible.
Any lingering fears of an improbable comeback from Zoran Stratev's side were assuaged after less than an hour. Kelly, the brightest of the three prospects handed a chance to impress, charged down the right, picking out Ngog. The 21-year-old, darting to the near post, caught his first-time volley sweetly, guiding the ball past Bogatinov. That was all that was needed. Liverpool, and Hodgson, could afford to relax, saving their energies for greater battles to come. (© Daily Telegraph, London)