James Lawton: Hodgson owes debt of gratitude to the stars driving Anfield revival
It is a foolish manager who doesn’t understand that he lives and dies by the spirit of his players
Monday 08 November 2010
Great talent, when consistently applied, tends to feed on itself but sometimes a little outside stimulus helps. If this is true, the brilliance of Fernando Torres yesterday may have been provoked, at least to a degree, by the growing sense that if Liverpool were to rescue something from a dismal start to the season, so much depended on the continued furies of Steven Gerrard – the only player at Anfield owning similar levels of natural ability.
The theory, at the very least, carried a huge weight of circumstantial evidence yesterday when Torres unfurled some exquisite examples of the touch and the vision which had disappeared for so long it was becoming almost a trick of memory.
Last Thursday night, the new owner John W Henry had every reason to believe that Gerrard was the heart, the soul and the sinew of the new sports franchise he promises to massage back to life in the way he did the World Series-winning Boston Red Sox.
Gerrard was everything in the Europa Cup comeback against Napoli. Yesterday, Torres responded against the strongest team in England and, some might say, potentially this season the most formidable in Europe. You wouldn't have guessed this by the ease with which Torres dismantled Chelsea at the start and the finish of a first half which brought Anfield back to the most tumultuous of life. The perspective came roaring back soon enough, though, when Carlo Ancelotti sent on Didier Drogba after telling his players that this was maybe a pivotal challenge to all their pretensions to fresh glory.
Chelsea looked Chelsea again and Pepe Reina was required to make a reflex save from Florent Malouda that carried roughly the same value as one of his compatriot Torres' shafts of superb opportunism.
If Malouda's strike had been successful, Liverpool would surely have been pitched into a gut-challenging test of the strength of the revival that has carried them so swiftly from the ignominy of home defeats by Northampton and Blackpool to the verge of the top four.
That, certainly, would have been the fear of Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson if Chelsea had been rewarded so quickly for their fierce return to the action. As it was, the experienced football man whose nerve – and dignity – has been stretched so hard this season had reason to believe, for the moment at least, that he had felt the warmth breath of redemption.
Of all the things Hodgson has learnt on his football travels, it is the value of latching on to football character, and whatever talent he can find, and encourage it to run as fast and as hard as it can. It brought an Indian summer to his career at Fulham and at Anfield yesterday he felt an exhilaration that may never have been surpassed in all his years in the game. His debt to Torres was, of course, as profound as the one he owed to Gerrard a few days earlier, but then it is a foolish coach or manager who doesn't understand that in the most basic way he lives and dies by the spirit and the appetite of his best players.
First Gerrard, now Torres have delivered the essence of their ability; Gerrard the fierce, explosive drive which so often comes like a storm and puts into the margins all those doubts about his ability to consistently shape the tactics of either Liverpool or England. Gerrard is unlikely ever to be a general; at his best he is the most superior shock troop, a man who can galvanise any team with the force of his game.
Torres is, of course, one of football's supreme matadors, a man whose moments of truth are filled with the most sublime timing and authority and the return of such conviction surely brought pleasure beyond the yearnings of the Kop.
Football needs such quality, such reminders, of why it is the world's most popular game.
For Liverpool, of course, it was pure deliverance, and for Hodgson there was also the satisfaction that in the chorus line of the Torres show there was a series of individual performances which, by the end – and given Chelsea's re-animation in the second half – were surely as significant in their own way as the grace notes of the great Spaniard.
The new owner has appointed a director of football and talks of the need to get far more value from Liverpool's academy. But if he is wise, he will continue for some decent time to allow Hodgson to enjoy the new climate he has helped, under the most appalling pressure, to create.
In victory, Hodgson spoke with eloquence about the imposters of win and loss and he was generous in his praise of his players. It was the soundest of performances, both in football and psychological terms, and perhaps confirmation of something his successor at Fulham, Mark Hughes, was saying a few days ago.
Hughes said that at Craven Cottage he had found a fine football atmosphere, players upon whom he could rely for their effort and their attitude. It was a generous gift from a fellow football man, though of course, we know the one Hodgson is likely to put at the top of the pile beneath his Christmas tree next month. It is one wrapped, with so much of his old assurance, by Fernando Torres.
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