Eyebrows were raised earlier in the week when Gérard Houllier suggested that the return of Dietmar Hamann would make "all the difference" to his Liverpool side. How, many wondered, could a defensive midfielder be seen as the key to changing the fortunes of an underperforming team? Thursday night provided the answer.
Hamann may not have inspired Liverpool to a romping victory over Steaua Bucharest in the second leg of the Uefa Cup second round, but his mere presence in the starting XI had a hugely significant impact on his team-mates. The defence looked far more confident with the German patrolling in front of them, while the attack seemed less frightened at the prospect of losing possession. In short, Hamann brought calmness to the team.
And then there was his effect on Steven Gerrard. Much will always be expected of the 22-year-old midfielder whenever he plays for Liverpool - a trend that will only increase now that the other talisman Michael Owen is sidelined for at least three weeks - but at least with Hamann back by his side Gerrard can now concentrate on what he does best.
Just as Nicky Butt does when they play together for England, Hamann provides Gerrard with the sort of cover he needs to focus all his energies on forward forays. Too often this season, Liverpool's new captain has been forced to sit between two stools, effectively trying to fill both central-midfield positions at the same time.
On Thursday, as a nervy Anfield crowd watched Liverpool defeat the current Romanian League leaders 1-0 and thus book their place in the third round by the narrowest of aggregate victories, Gerrard was outstanding. Freed from his often cumbersome defensive duties, he was at the heart of everything positive the home side did.
Having also set up Harry Kewell's 49th-minute winner - a wonderful far-post header - it was no surprise that he was voted Man of the Match. "Steven led by example," Houllier said, preferring not to dwell on his player's horror tackle on Radei Matoi early on in the game, "and he was involved in everything. He was an inspiration."
When asked why he felt Gerrard had played so well, the Frenchman had no hesitation. "Stevie was allowed a more attacking role because Didi [Hamann] was back in the side. It was good to have Didi back as he brought experience. Don't forget, this was his first game in seven months and so I thought he did well."
Bearing in mind the length of Hamann's absence, one might have expected Liverpool to have changed tactics. But the German international feels he has come back to the same old Liverpool. No matter that Houllier has been at pains to accommodate more attacking players, Hamann believes that the holding midfielder is as crucial as ever.
We may be playing a slightly new system," the 30-year-old said, "but the role I play is still there. Stevie Gerrard has been playing in that position while I've been injured, so although tactics may have changed, it doesn't mean we haven't got that job any more."
He added: "You still need to defend and keep clean sheets to get results, so whatever style we play, I think if I'm on top of my game I can find a place in the side."
Hamann is not the most demonstrative of people, but even he showed pleasure at being singled out by his team-mates as a crucial player to have back in the fold. "Obviously it is nice," he said, "but when you return to the first team you have to be at your best to stay in it. I've been back in training for a few weeks and working hard so it wasn't too bad considering it was my first game. Luckily, I felt good."
After being reacquainted with their midfield enforcer, Liverpool must now rediscover their winning ways in the Premiership. Currently lying in mid-table, and having already given up on the title, Houllier's men are in desperate need of the three points against Birmingham City today if they are to stay in the chase for that all-important fourth place. Success in the knockout competitions, even the Uefa Cup, will no longer do for the increasingly restless faithful.
"It's good to know we go into the New Year still in Europe," Hamann said, "but what we have to do now is improve in the League. It's disappointing we are so far away from the top three and I doubt we can make up 12 points on them [Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United], but we still have to make sure we're in the Champions' League next season."
He added: "It's not good enough where we are at the moment, and we have to make sure in the next few weeks that we get back up the table." Hamann's return should make the upcoming climb that little bit easier.
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- Stephen Carter