Dirk Kuyt is an old-fashioned footballer. The stamina that carried him through to a World Cup final in South Africa was honed on endless runs on the dunes at Katwijk by the seas his father fished. His is a game founded on hard work and resolve and sometimes they were the only qualities Liverpool possessed last night. It was entirely appropriate it was his header, scored when Anfield was preparing itself for extra time, that took Liverpool into the last 16 of the Europa League.
When his manager, Kenny Dalglish, speaks about football, he employs language that in any other profession would be called socialistic. He talks of hard work, of every footballer being equal and of the team being paramount. It is the language the old trade unionists would have recognised and it is the kind of talk Kuyt understands instinctively.
The header from Raul Meireles' corner lightened what had been a relentless, unimaginative evening that was five minutes away from grinding into extra time. But it was put away emphatically and sent Steven Gerrard, who was watching from a hospitality box, into spasms of delight. Kuyt had joked that since he had taken over the pre-match music in the home dressing room, playing The Kings of Leon, The Killers and Amy Winehouse, Liverpool had not lost. His manager, who had earlier taken Andy Carroll to a Boyzone concert, might not approve.
It was a victory that came at a cost. Daniel Agger and Martin Kelly, whose runs down the right flank like a colt on the gallops had been one of the evening's few highlights, had limped off while Sotiris Kyrgiakos finished with a cut eye. The changes allowed Jamie Carragher to come on and overtake Ryan Giggs as the British footballer to have played most European games, a lead that may change hands during the remains of the season.
"They deserve great credit for the effort they put in," said Dalglish of his players. "They have this attitude where you have got to help each other and they were helped by the crowd. We knew they would be patient because they have been educated in what European football is about."
A goal from Sparta Prague at any time could have wrecked Liverpool's passage to the latter stages of this competition but they were not good enough to score one while Liverpool, with Luis Suarez ineligible and Carroll not yet fit, lacked a centre-forward with sufficient quality to force the issue. The result was a stalemate of sorts, especially when what appeared a blatant handball from Manuel Pamic was ignored by the Serbian referee.
Dalglish remarked that the only people who thought the Europa League was irrelevant were those not involved in it. It was important to those who crammed into Anfield for a 6pm kick-off, it was important to the 3,000 who had travelled to Merseyside from the Czech Republic and it would have mattered desperately to Joe Cole.
He is a footballer who wears his state of mind on his shirt. His last meaningful contribution at Anfield had been to score the last-minute winner against Bolton that appeared fleetingly to have saved Roy Hodgson's job and this was his first start under Dalglish.
Dalglish will reserve his judgement, though when he calls him "wee Joe" the Scot betrays a certain affection for a footballer whose game sometimes appears entirely built on confidence. Judging from the way Anfield turned on Cole when he ducked out of a challenge with the Sparta Prague keeper, Jaromir Blazek, that affection is not universal.
Cole put one shot on the roof of the net, had another saved by Blazek and then in the closing seconds, as Sparta Prague lumbered forward in search of the goal that would have sent them through, Liverpool broke away and the opportunity presented itself for an emphatic winner in front of the Kop. He shot wide.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Kelly (Carragher ht), Kyrgiakos, Agger (Skrtel, 85), Wilson; Poulsen (Spearing, 64), Lucas; Kuyt, Meireles, Cole; Ngog. Substitutes not used Gulacsi (gk), Pacheco, Jovanovic, Rodriguez. Booked Kelly, Poulsen, Carragher, Lucas.
Sparta Prague (4-1-4-1): Blazek; Kusnir, Repka, Brabec, Pamic (Keric 90); Vacek; Sionko (Podany 74), Matejovsky, Abena (Pekhart 78), Kadlec; Kweuke. Substitutes not used Zitka (gk), Kladrubsky, Zeman, Husek. Booked Pamic, Matejovsky, Kweuke.
Referee M Mazic (Serbia)Reuse content