Before we start, yes, it was ‘only Portsmouth’ (an obvious dismissal of a brave, battling team that is sadly inevitable given their dire situation) but last night there was plenty to admire, to appreciate and to ascertain that Liverpool are at least back on a relatively even keel ahead of what looks like being a crucial week.
They were ruthless in their dismissal of Pompey in the first half at Anfield – hitting three goals in six minutes for the first time since a certain final in Istanbul – and while that game remains firmly rooted, but forever remembered, in the past, a man who could have a big say in Liverpool’s future came to the fore in front of an expectant Anfield crowd. Say hello to the real Alberto Aquilani. This was more like it. Given the freedom to roam and to join in with the attacking play of the likes of Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and wide boys Ryan Babel and Maxi Rodriguez, Aquilani flourished for Liverpool last night. Gone were the forlorn looks towards the referee and gone too were the frustrations and petulance that have been all too evident in his first few months as a Liverpool player. He completed 90 minutes too. Aquilani’s first ever Liverpool goal, their third of last night’s quickfire trio, was simply a joy to behold. The Italian finished off a terrific move from Gerrard and Torres, and hopefully his strike will breed a new found confidence that could see the midfielder become an increasingly important player with each passing week.
There’s no doubting his almost childlike, innocent desire to do well (he spoke about ‘not being able to sleep’ last night after notching his first Reds goal in front of the Kop) and Rafael Benitez will hope that the strike gives him the confidence to kick on and become an indispensable member of the team in the closing weeks of the season. After last night’s indiscretion from his captain, he might well have to be. Gerrard couldn’t really have chosen a worse time to test the country’s patience with their star footballers. With the nation’s players on the front and back pages for a variety of on and off field problems, media storms can break out at the drop of a hat, and the Reds captain can expect to have questions to answer after his apparent elbow on the delightful Michael Brown, with whom he has had problems in the past. There were rumblings after his supposed ‘obscene gesture’ (depending on which camera angle you saw it from) towards referee Andre Marriner last Monday. Marirner later admitted that he was not sure that the gesture was an obscene one at all, and that even if it was, he was not too bothered, but the damage was done in the eyes of many, and don’t expect the media to let this latest incident lie. The FA would love to make an example of one of their leading players in the current climate, and Gerrard could well be facing a ban.
He should have known better, and will only have himself to blame if he is sitting out Liverpool’s next few games. One man who should not be sitting out those next few fixtures is Ryan Babel. Never this column’s favourite player, the Dutchman has at least always had a raw ability that he has never quite allied to a great consistency. Admittedly Benitez’ treatment of him has not always been fair, but Babel is starting to show that he can be relied upon to produce on a regular basis. Perhaps spurred on by his desire to make the Dutch World Cup squad, or maybe finally realising that there aren’t many better places to go once you leave Liverpool, Babel has shown an improvement in performance in recent weeks, and is deserving of his starting berth, which he’ll hopefully keep on Thursday along with Aquilani. Lille are the visitors in the Europa League, with the Reds attempting to overturn that one goal deficit inflicted upon them in northern France last week.
The win over Portsmouth last night should raise confidence if nothing else, and Babel, Aquilani and the rest of their team-mates have been so short of that at times this season. The task now is to turn confidence into progress. Lille represent a French test they have to pass.
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