Hodgson's youth gamble pays off
Napoli 0 Liverpool 0
Friday 22 October 2010
A few miles from Vesuvius, Roy Hodgson was metaphorically staring into the volcano. Defeat in the Merseyside derby that topped a bad start to the season had pushed the Liverpool manager seemingly very close to the edge. According to that most baseless of currency – internet rumours – after he had presumably overseen a humiliating rout in Naples, Hodgson would fly home, call a press conference at Anfield for this morning and announce his resignation. Frank Rijkaard, who left Galatasaray this week, had already been singled out as his replacement.
As with so much of this stuff, nothing of the sort actually happened – as a rough guide to internet rumours the News of the World do not tell teenagers blogging from their bedrooms that they are about to break an exclusive. "I have heard the ridiculous rumours and there is not an iota of truth in any of it," Hodgson said. "I have never considered resigning and I never will."
Instead, Hodgson oversaw what was probably the best performance under his management. After leaving Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Raul Meireles on Merseyside to prepare for Sunday's encounter with Blackburn, the manager gambled that this was a game he could probably afford to lose.
However, in one of European football's most intense cauldrons, a young, makeshift team not only endured, they held their own.
Here, each side had one exceptional chance to break the deadlock. Paul Konchesky cleared a shot off the line before the interval and, in the second half, Ryan Babel squandered an opportunity to give Liverpool an improbable victory after being put through by a beautifully judged pass from Milan Jovanovic. His shot clattered into Morgan De Sanctis's legs and the chance for something extraordinary passed. Nevertheless, in the wake of Utrecht's draw with Steaua Bucharest, Liverpool still top their group and this was the kind of backs-to-the wall display away from home that had seen Fulham through to the Europa League final last season.
"It was a point that many people thought we would not get," Hodgson reflected. "We stepped up to the plate in a very tough atmosphere. It doesn't matter if you are Inter, Milan or Juventus, this is a hard, hard place to come. We are still marooned in the League," he said. "But we have shown tonight that we are far from dead."
Hodgson, however, was angered by the violence that had surrounded this fixture that had left several of the club's fans injured. "In my pre-match press conference, I was asked in Italian whether I was concerned about the damage drunken Liverpool fans would do in Naples," he said. "Given what has happened, I find that faintly amusing. They were peaceful people who came here to watch football and ended up in hospital. I hope they don't come home with too many bad memories."
It was not in truth much of a spectacle but the setting, at least, was panoramic. Beyond the concrete, graffiti-strewn walls of the San Paolo the sun set into the Gulf of Naples, framing Vesuvius in a sheath of gold. Away from the volcano, the stadium seethed. Inside there were images of love – a vast banner saying "Ti Amo" and a portrait of Diego Maradona, who in 1987 drove this proud, chaotic, impoverished city to an Italian championship they have never forgotten. And there were expressions of menace; flares burning in the stands, police helicopters clattering overhead.
And yet a Liverpool team with plenty of academy products – Jonjo Shelvey had never before started a competitive game for the club – were not intimidated. Shelvey even provided Liverpool with their first shot on target after half an hour, while another young midfielder, Jay Spearing, received Michele Pazienza's boot in his face.
Napoli had billed this match as a show of strength; an opportunity to demonstrate that they were back mixing it with the big boys. In fact, they caused Liverpool fewer problems than Blackpool. Possession was surrendered, moves broke down and the collective howl uttered by the San Paolo when a horribly misplaced cross from Ezequiel Lavezzi landed on the stadium's running track, demonstrated they were quite capable of turning on their own.
In first-half stoppage time, Napoli looked for a second as if they had broken through as Marek Hamsik turned Edison Cavani's shot past Pepe Reina for what would have been the opening goal of the night had Konchesky not reacted instinctively.
Given what had happened to Frank Lampard at Bloemfontein during the World Cup, it was a neat irony that is should have been a German referee who had to judge if the ball had crossed the line. Thorsten Kinhofer ruled it had not. Traditionally, you are supposed to see Naples and Die. Liverpool survived.
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.
Liverpool's remaining fixtures 4 Nov Napoli (h); 2 Dec Steaua Bucharest (a); 15 Dec Utecht (h).
Napoli (3-2-4-1): De Sanctis; Campagnaro, Cannavaro, Aronica; Piacenza, Gargano (Yebda, 83); Maggio (Zuniga, 76), Hamsik (Sosa, 84), Lavezzi, Dossena; Cavani. Substitutes not used Iezzo (gk), Grava, Dumitru, Cribari.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Kelly, Carragher (Kyrgiakos, h-t), Skrtel, Konchesky (Aurelio, 65); Poulsen, Spearing; Jovanovic, Shelvey, Babel (Cole, 77); Ngog. Substitutes not used Jones (gk), Rodriguez, Wilson, Eccleston.
Referee T Kinhofer (Germany).
Man of the match Konchesky.
Match rating 6/10.
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