If Liverpool’s current shirt sponsors did perfect Champions League nights, then the 1-0 win over Debrecen wouldn’t be one. If the Reds’ new backers want to help make the club the best in the world, then this was probably one of the smaller steps in the right direction. In the week that Liverpool announced a new £80m sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered, a bank that suddenly everyone pretended to have heard of, and one that has apparently somehow benefited from the credit crunch.
The Reds were less than convincing in seeing off Hungarian champions Debrecen in the opening round of matches in the Champions League – ponderous in possession, wasteful in front of goal and at times sloppy at the back, this was your archetypal ‘getting the job done’ kind of victory. Both teams seemed to take to the pitch knowing who would get the three points at the final whistle – the game was the mere inconvenience in between. Liverpool were always going to be too good for Debrecen if the visitors came to Anfield and opened up, just as the Reds were always going to break them down once they set out to defend. While the Hungarians were welcomed and applauded upon the occasion of their first ever Champions League match – a common courtesy to new Anfield visitors from overseas – it isn’t a night that will live long in the memories of anyone connected with the Reds, bar perhaps Dirk Kuyt, who extended his superb European goalscoring run with another important goal.
This writer referred to Kuyt being underrated earlier in the week, but now that he’s gone and scored yet again in the Champions League, it may as well be repeated. He has just become Liverpool’s third-highest European Cup goalscorer of all time, keeping good company behind Steven Gerrard and Ian Rush, and he’s got a good chance of catching the Welshman’s total this season. Kuyt is a real footballer’s footballer – a throwback to the days before image rights and brand awareness. His posters won’t adorn many young fans’ walls, he won’t sell as many shirts as a Fernando Torres, he doesn’t dive, seems immune to injury and scores the kind of scruffy, close range goals that wouldn’t make a Goal of the Month line-up even if it was the only one scored.
The Dutchman – who runs a foundation in Holland aimed at organising sports and other social events for young children with disabilities – has had his fair share of criticism over the years, and while it’s true that he’s not the most dynamic of footballers, his list of important goals for Liverpool is far more impressive than many other, much more celebrated players. His conversion from striker to right midfielder was viewed with suspicion by most when it began, but now seems to make perfect sense. Kuyt has all of the qualities of the hard-working midfielder, but, as he’s shown when restored to a central attacking position in the last two games, he can still look like a goalscorer when presented with a chance. The addition of Glen Johnson on that flank has allowed whoever’s played ahead of him this season – Kuyt or Yossi Benayoun – to get into the box and pop up with goals.
Those almost identical Anfield Road end strikes against Burnley and Debrecen were the goals of a poacher, the kind of strikes that Kuyt scored regularly as an out-and-out forward in Holland. The kind of strikes that Liverpool fans thought they’d be seeing every week when Rafa Benitez signed him from Feyenoord in 2006. His goals haven’t been as frequent in England, but they are almost always important. His presence in a team may not encourage the kind of quick, free-flowing football that you’d see if you had Cristiano Ronaldo on your right wing, but Kuyt’s team-mates are in no doubt about his importance to the team, especially in the Champions League. “It seems like it’s his competition,” says Pepe Reina. “He always scores in the Champions League, he’s got into the habit and let’s hope he keeps on scoring a lot of goals. He did a good job.”
He’s likely to keep on quietly doing that good job for some time yet, as there’s no doubt that Benitez trusts him far more than any other player that he’s signed. If this is to be the year that Liverpool collect their sixth European Cup, Dirk Kuyt will be heavily involved throughout. You can probably put your shirt on that.
Liverpool Club Focus
The People of Thailand & Singapore vs. Xabi Alonso – July 29
Should nobody expect a Spanish acquisition? – August 5
High hopes – August 12
False start – August 18
Plenty of bets, but no slip – August 21
Three games, two defeats and one big problem – August 25
It gets no easier – August 27
Smells like team spirit – September 1
Babel crows for return to homeland – September 4
Into the Twilight Zone – September 8
Settling the score – September 11
Benayoun defies hs critics – September 15
Probably not the best performance in the world – September 18