John W Henry's wife, Linda, had wondered aloud what song she should learn for her first visit to Anfield. The familiar one about Steven Gerrard, which by the end was crashing around the grand old stadium her husband now owns, would be a good first choice.
There were some who imagined that with the club having to adjust expectations downwards, Anfield's great European nights may have been gone forever. It may have been the Europa League rather than the European Cup, but this match will happily take its place alongside the St Etiennes and the Borussia Monchengladbachs.
One of the many criticisms directed at Roy Hodgson is that he makes his substitutions too late. At half-time, a goal down and palpably outplayed, Liverpool seemed pedestrian and slightly lost on their own pitch. The Kop had been calling for their captain from the moment Ezequiel Lavezzi, who ordinarily would have been the man of this particular match, broke through.
They were granted their wish in a way only the most fervent believer could have predicted. His hat-trick came in 14 second-half minutes and from leading the group, Napoli suddenly found themselves flailing in third, the ground cut from beneath their feet.
Curiously, while Liverpool had spurned obvious chances to have scored – with Raul Meireles screwing his drive wide from the six-yard line and Jonjo Shelvey making a schoolboyish hash of a free-header – Gerrard's intervention came from nowhere.
Shelvey, who had been gamely pushing forward, was dispossessed and Andrea Dossena, who once shared a dressing room with Gerrard and who was involved in all three of Liverpool's goals, rolled his backpass to Morgan de Sanctis slightly too gently. His one-time team-mate slid in bravely, dramatically and effectively. "It was the actions of a man who was determined to get a goal for his side even at the risk of injury," his manager said. At the time, it appeared to seal a draw Liverpool probably deserved but which provided the platform for something altogether more extraordinary.
First, Salvatore Aronica clumsily challenged Glen Johnson in the area and once the French referee, Fredy Fautrel, whom the Napoli coach, Walter Mazzarri, thought susceptible to home pressure, awarded a penalty, Gerrard drove it home with a certainty that has become utterly familiar.
It was not over. Again Dossena stumbled, losing the ball to Lucas Leiva, who found his captain and Gerrard very icily chipped De Sanctis. He has made great interventions before – the second-half turnaround against Olympiakos which enabled Rafael Benitez's side to qualify for the knockout phases of a European Cup they would win – but by his standards until now this season he had been searching for his best form. As a revenge for the indignities and injuries suffered by Liverpool's fans in Naples a fortnight before, it was served icily chilled.
Above Anfield, the police helicopter clattered, outside Anfield there were police everywhere and inside Anfield the Kop defended the honour of those attacked by Napoli's ultras – the Mastiffs – by getting out their Italian dictionaries. One banner proclaimed Napoli Merda (Napoli shit) while, more cryptically, another asked their visitors to Usate Aqua e Sapone (use Soap and Water). It did its job – the 2,000 Italians in the ground were suitably inflamed, although they carried a banner wishing Diego Maradona, still their spiritual leader 20 years after he quit the San Paolo, a happy birthday.
Napoli were quicker and slicker and in the 27th minute, Christian Poulsen's misdirected header was nodded into Ezequiel Lavezzi's path by Edinson Cavani.
Liverpool responded well to going behind. Moments after Lavezzi's goal, Christian Poulsen had played in Ngog, who under pressure from his former team-mate, Andrea Dossena, drove his shot just wide. The applause was for the move and maybe for the fact that this was arguably the first time since his arrival on Merseyside that Poulsen had played the ball forward. Gerrard would do it rather more effectively.
Results so far Liverpool 4 Steaua Bucharest 1, Napoli 0 Utrecht 0; Steaua Bucharest 3 Napoli 3, Utrecht 0 Liverpool 0; Napoli 0 Liverpool 0, Utrecht 1 Steaua Bucharest 1; Steaua Bucharest 3 Utrecht 1, Liverpool 3 Napoli 1.
Liverpool's remaining fixtures 2 Dec Steaua Bucharest (a); 15 Dec Utrecht (h).
Liverpool (4-2-3-1) Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Konchesky; Poulsen (Eccleston, 65), Spearing; Shelvey, Meireles, Jovanovic (Gerrard, h-t); Ngog. Substitutes not used Hansen (gk), Lucas Leiva, Wilson, Kelly, Skrtel,
Napoli (3-4-2-1) De Sanctis; Campagnaro, Cannavaro, Aronica; Maggio, Pazienza, Gargano, Dossena; Hamsik (Yebda, 84), Lavezzi; Cavani. Substitutes not used Gianello (gk), Grava, Dumitru, Santacroce, Zuniga, Sosa.
Referee F Fautrel (France).
Man of the match Gerrard.
Match rating 8/10.Reuse content