Monday, April 19, 2010
Understudy stars on Anfield stage
Richard Jolly, Anfield
There are thankless jobs in football. Understudy to Fernando Torres is one of them. Comparisons are inevitably unflattering and often damning. Such praise as is bestowed can come in the form of the backhanded compliment: at least he isn't his former team-mate Andriy Voronin, for instance.
• Liverpool 3-0 West Ham United
• Carragher retains European hope
That is David Ngog's lot in life. Leading the line for Liverpool is an enviable position, but the young Frenchman tends to be seen as a kid trying to do El Nino's job. The half-time announcements included an advertisement for an evening with Mike McCartney, the less famous brother of Paul.
To invoke another of Merseyside's more successful collectives, Ngog standing in for Torres can appear the equivalent of an amateur musician borrowing a guitar and approaching a microphone on John Lennon's day off. On an occasion when Ngog was in tune, there was no Fab Four for Liverpool, but a perfectly acceptable trio to see off West Ham.
The karaoke version resembled the real article: Ngog's contribution was an assured strike made possible by a finisher's sense of anticipation which provided echoes of the absent Spaniard. There were illustrations of instinct to accompany his obvious pace.
But Ngog belongs to a particular species of signing: representing value for money, and arguably a bargain, at £1.5 million, but perhaps not of the calibre Liverpool historically require. There is evidence of high standards of attackers everywhere: John Aldridge in the press box, Kenny Dalglish in the directors' box, Ian Rush often at the ground.
The ingénue has illustrious predecessors. "He is very keen to learn and he is trying," said Rafa Benitez. As with his record, Ngog's is open to interpretation: five goals in 10 league starts, or eight in 34 appearances including cup competitions and substitute appearances; a goal every other game, the traditional sign of a fine striker, or worse than one every four, which isn't. Torres, of course, strikes at the speed of the TGV Liverpool will be boarding en route to Madrid.
But with his campaign ended, it is up to Ngog, who Benitez prefers to Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt as Torres' deputy. "Always when you play instead of Fernando, people are talking but I have confidence in him," added Benitez. "He can score goals. He had one or two chances and he needed to score. He was playing well. He has very good movement and he can keep the defenders busy."
As for West Ham, they were found wanting, especially at set plays. "When I walked into the changing room after the match I didn't need to say anything because they said 'I made a mistake' and 'I'm sorry for that'," said Gianfranco Zola. "It wasn't our best performance."
That was an understatement. The 12th man proved more eloquent than the first 11. The West Ham fans asked: "Where's your famous atmosphere?" Like Liverpool's famous No. 9, it wasn't needed. There was no Torres but, for once, no problem on a night of empty seats at Anfield.
With Zola's side more muted than the home support, victory was secured by the interval. Steven Gerrard curled in the free kick from the right wing and Yossi Benayoun contrived to deflect the ball in via his midriff and the far post. There are occasions when Liverpool players' attitudes have been questioned but this was an unconventional way of proving he had the stomach required.
The former West Ham midfielder played a pivotal part in Liverpool's second, too. Benayoun's perceptive cross-field ball enabled Maxi Rodriguez to deliver a telling cross. Ngog met it, ahead of Matthew Upson at the near post to sweep the ball in for his first in the league in 2010.
Gerrard's ploy of aiming for Sotirios Kyrgiakos from set-pieces was understandable. The Greek should have scored when he headed a corner into the ground before it bounced off the bar; he almost did when he touched a free kick on to the post, before it rebounded in off the unwitting Robert Green's left foot.
At which point thoughts turned to the trek to Madrid to face Atletico. "Hopefully the journey will be good," added Benitez, forced to go via London, Paris and Bordeaux to his home city. Liverpool have been plotting a route to Europe for weeks, but they never thought it might entail a knowledge of the French train network to reach the Spanish capital. It is far easier to navigate their way past West Ham.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard - Fashioned two goals from dead-ball situations and showed signs that, after an undistinguished campaign, he is coming back into form. The Liverpool captain ensured the win was so comfortable that Benitez was able to rest him for the closing stages.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Sixth place was reclaimed from Aston Villa, though possibly only for 48 hours. With nine wins and a draw in their last 10 league games at Anfield, it is apparent that the problems have occurred elsewhere. This was as comfortable as the scoreline suggests, with Benayoun, Maxi and Ngog among those to impress.
WEST HAM VERDICT: With dismal marking, a lack of fight in the absence of the suspended Scott Parker and Carlton Cole apart, no threat in the final third, this was an abject display. With three matches to go, Saturday's game against Wigan is of vast importance. West Ham probably will stay up but, on this evidence, they might not deserve to.
MEETING MARTIN: New Liverpool chairman Martin Broughton was at Anfield, but Benitez is yet to sit down with him to discuss his future. "With his job with British Airways I think he's busy now," said the Spaniard with a smile.