Thursday, 4 November 2010

Liverpool 3 Napoli 1: Captain Fantastic Steven Gerrard hits 15-minute hat-trick to save Roy's blushes again



Silencing the critics: Steven Gerrard's 15-minute hat-trick handed Liverpool a major European boost

He has not been credited with much since taking over at Anfield, but Roy Hodgson deserves the gratitude of every Liverpool fol lower for persuading Steven Gerrard to stay during the summer.

The Liverpool skipper may have turned 30 shortly before that crucial meeting with the newly-appointed Hodgson, but no one had the slightest doubt that he remained pivotal to hopes of an overdue revival at Anfield. If they had, they do not any more.

Not after he came off the bench at the end of an alarmingly sub-standard performance in the first half and single-handedly rescued Hodgson’s unbeaten record in Europe. He was on for only one half but there were no half measures as he hammered a stunning 14-minute hat-trick to turn this Europa League game on its head and leave Liverpool on the verge of a place in the knock-out stages.

If Anfield patrons had cause for welcoming Gerrard’s loyalty during the summer, Hodgson may reflect on it with barely-disguised relief after his inspirational midfielder spared him more discomfort in a brief reign that has hardly been plain sailing.

A weakened Liverpool line-up were distinctly second-best in a first half dominated by Napoli, with attacking midfielder Ezequiel Lavezzi calling the shots and threatening to take the game beyond the reach of Hodgson’s labouring side.

Lavezzi, a Carlos Tevez lookalike with his darting runs and sky blue kit, laid on openings for Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani before taking over shooting duties himself — to devastating effect.

Jonjo Shelvey almost paid for a misdirected pass in the 24th minute as Lavezzi advanced on goal from the halfway line and unleashed a drive that swerved narrowly wide of the far post, with Pepe Reina struggling to reach it. There were no reprieves four minutes later as Levazzi latched on to Cavani’s headed through ball and slid an unerring finish past the advancing Reina.

Capitalise: Napoli's Ezequiel Lavezzi handed his side a deserved first-half lead

Liverpool had mustered little in response and needed drastic action to raise their game enough to wrest the initiative from a Napoli team bearing little resemblance to the misfiring, toothless outfit that stumbled to a 0-0 stalemate in Italy a fortnight ago.

It looked a lost cause until Gerrard stepped forward with a timely reminder that nothing is evidently beyond his powers, particularly on European nights at Anfield.

The Europa League may be a poor substitute for UEFA’s premier club competition, the one in which Gerrard longs to test himself on an annual basis, but it hardly seemed to matter. He was far more concerned with proving he is no poor substitute, as he went on in place of Milan Jovanovic and began the task of hauling his side back from the brink.

The mere sight of him warming up during the interval was enough to draw the biggest cheer of the night thus far but there was no hint of the drama to come as Liverpool squandered two glaring chances in quick succession in the 52nd minute, with Gerrard to blame for the second miss.

David Ngog fired straight at goalkeeper Morgan de Sanctis from point blank range, after being set up by Raul Meireles, and Gerrard, to his dismay, blazed the rebound yards over from an equally inviting position. Shelvey miscued a header hopelessly on the hour, and the tale of woe continued in the 65th minute when Ngog turned inside the area and Meireles stepped in to drill a shot wide with the goal gaping.

Game changer: Gerrard instantly upped the tempo and his team-mates soon followed

As the television cameras panned round to the directors’ box, they caught new owner John Henry shaking his head. It was almost imperceptible, but a shake of the head, nonetheless.

Down below him, Hodgson continued to pace anxiously round the technical area, mindful that a first defeat in Europe after five wins and two draws could undo all the progress made with much-needed victories against Blackburn and Bolton in the Barclays Premier League.

Spot on: After Glen Johnson was tripped, Gerrard notched his second from 12yards

He need not have worried. Not with Gerrard in the mood to snatch the initiative back Liverpool’s way, a mission that began to unfold in the 75th minute following an error by the hapless Andrea Dossena. The former Liverpool left-back, derided throughout his 18 months on Merseyside, at last found a way of endearing himself to an unforgiving Liverpool public with an underhit back pass that triggered a race for possession between Gerrard and De Sanctis.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and Gerrard duly got there first with an outstretched boot that forced the ball past the onrushing keeper and into the net.

Chipping in: The captain completed his hat-trick in spectacular fashion

The Anfield skipper said: ‘When you’re in that position against a giant of a goalkeeper you’ve just got to go in and hope for the best. There was no class involved, just determination and desire. I don’t think the keeper fancied it.’

An ugly foul by Salvatore Aronica on Glen Johnson gave Gerrard the chance to fire Liverpool in front from the penalty spot in the 87th minute.

The England midfielder’s fourth hat-trick was complete in the 89th minute after he surged clear and lifted a clever finish over the stranded De Sanctis after the ball had broken to him following a midfield tackle by Lucas.

source: dailymail

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