Like a reality show in which you no longer care about the characters, Liverpool's Europa League group campaign creaked to its conclusion last night. It had provided the club with much of what Roy Hodgson would have wanted. Qualification was utterly straightforward; there were no defeats and, in the overturning of Napoli inspired by Steven Gerrard, there was an authentic great Anfield night.
That was the first match the club's new co-owner, John W Henry, chose to attend. Had the owner of Boston Red Sox made his Anfield debut last night, he might have concluded he should have invested in a more exciting English sport; shove ha'penny perhaps. Dead matches are either carefree, shot-a-minute affairs or a tedious playing out of time. This fell into the latter category.
Even Hodgson broke into a smile when reminded that "the game wasn't a classic." The club, employing more imagination than some of the passing on display, had ensured a near full house by giving free tickets to children who came with an adult. "I was hoping that with so many in from the first time, we could provide a sparkling performance," he added.
If this was an opportunity for a young Liverpool side to impress their manager, it was one that was largely not taken; perhaps because this was a group of footballers that had so rarely performed together. Joe Cole, the one senior player who would have wanted a command performance on a minor stage, could sum up his evening by winning a free-kick on the edge of the area and the smashing it low into the wall.
It was not just the men in red. Utrecht, the team who had to win, managed their first shot on target with exactly an hour gone and it was not an experience the side ninth in the Dutch Eredivisie felt inclined to repeat. They had, however, brought almost 4,000 fans to Merseyside, who were loud and seasonal in their choice of songs and who ensured the game had its quota of atmosphere. They were even given the sight of Dirk Kuyt, who made his name in the Dutch university town. There was however, no sign of the promised Fernando Torres.
Before kick-off, Hodgson took the unusual step of issuing an apology to journalists for suggesting that Torres would start the game. Instead, the young audience had to make to with Ryan Babel rather than a glimpse of Europe's most elegant striker.
Hodgson had intended to begin with the striker but, the club's medical staff persuaded him otherwise. "I thought it would be a chance for Fernando to get his confidence back," he said. "But I also had to talk to our fitness people and they made me see sense that it wasn't the wisest thing to do. Had he played a wonderful 45 minutes, it would have been worth it but as it panned out, it would have been a total waste of time."
Unlike most of his team-mates, Milan Jovanovic is no longer young – he will turn 30 in April – but he is running out of patience about his lack of first-team opportunities. Last night he provided the one true moment of excellence in a dismal game that both managers might have issued an apology for. With defenders backing off, the tall Serb sent a shot thundering against the bar via the fingertips of Michel Vorm's gloves.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Utrecht's most dangerous forward, spent the night in hospital having fractured his collarbone; giving the young striker a painful memory of the evening that will linger longer than most.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Jones; Kelly, Skrtel (Kyrgiakos, h-t), Wilson, Aurelio; Jovanovic (Kuyt, 73), Poulsen, Shelvey, Cole; Eccleston (Pacheco, 56), Babel. Substitutes not used Hansen (g), Johnson, Meireles, Torres. Booked: Eccleston.
Utrecht (4-4-1-1): Vorm; Cornelisse, Keller, Wuytens, Nesu; Duplan (Oar, 71), Silberbauer, Nijholt, Mertens; Maguire (Sarota, 84); Van Wolfswinkel (De Kogel, 45). Substitutes not used Cummins (gk), Van der Maarel, Vostermans.
Referee K Jakobsson (Iceland).
Results Liverpool 4 Steaua Bucharest 1, Napoli 0 Utrecht 0; Steaua 3 Napoli 3, Utrecht 0 Liverpool 0; Napoli 0 Liverpool 0, Utrecht 1 Steaua 1; Steaua 3 Utrecht 1, Liverpool 3 Napoli 1. Steaua 1 Liverpool 1; Utrecht 3 Napoli 3; Napoli 1 Steaua 0, Liverpool 0 Utrecht 0.