A mischievous grin appeared across Rafael Benitez's face. "I will tell you something that maybe will provide headlines tomorrow," he said. "Steven Gerrard has the same freedom now as when he was playing as a right winger."
On a weekend when Chelsea and Manchester United went out of the FA Cup the Liverpool manager was overestimating the news value of his revelation, but you could see his point. The early period of Benitez's time at Anfield was dominated by his playing Gerrard wide, an inclination that left the player grumpy and the supporters mystified. Now he has moved his captain away from his preferred central midfield again and the result is devastating.
Gerrard's new job is secondary striker, a role he has not always filled with distinction in the past. The difference now is he has the electrifying Fernando Torres as his partner, a combination that pulverised Newcastle United on Saturday and Internazionale will not be relishing meeting them tomorrow night in the Champions League.
Liverpool will be defending a 2-0 lead at San Siro and Gerrard's ability to buttress midfield and move forward is likely to define the contest. If it does, his manager will be quietly confident. "With the quality and power he has when he goes forward he can be unstoppable," Benitez said. "We have played with this system before but we didn't have the same players around him. The understanding with Torres is very good and that's a big difference. He still has to help the midfield, but he doesn't have to get in the box and go back 40 metres. Now it's just 15 metres, no more."
Both Gerrard (19 goals this season) and Torres (25) scored after Jermaine Pennant had punctured Newcastle's resistance with a lucky rebound and even the suffering Newcastle manager, Kevin Keegan, was moved to admiration. "There is more to come, definitely. He is 27 and he is still young, going to get better. I reached my peak at 27-28 and most people say that's when you are at your best.
"I rated him as soon as I saw him at 18 and I rated him as a character. When I used to see kids with Gerrard on the back of their shirts at my soccer school, I used to say to the mum and dad, 'Good role model'."
Any team in the Premier League would welcome Gerrard but the evidence at Anfield suggested Newcastle would benefit more than most. They have skill, but where is the fight that Gerrard would bring, the doggedness normally associated with teams near the bottom three? A tally of two points since Keegan returned in January says it is well hidden if it exists.
The reverse, rather than blunt Keegan's zeal, seemed almost to re-energise him. "I'm fine," he said when asked about his frame of mind. "I enjoy working with these of players. They feel the hurt like we all do, like the supporters do. But I am enjoying the job. I go in every day with enthusiasm. It takes time to get things right, but if you turn it round it can move at pace as well. We have seen it happen at other clubs, we have seen it happen at this club before. We can make it happen again. For the fans, the players and the staff it might look a long way off, but I can see it. Rome wasn't built in a day. Last time it didn't happen as quickly as people imagine."
With fixtures against Birmingham City and Fulham on the immediate horizon the turnaround needs to be imminent. Keegan agreed that, when he arrived, winning four matches out of the 16 was not formidable. "Four out of nine is a lot different," he said.
Goals: Pennant (43) 1-0; Torres (45) 2-0; Gerrard (51) 3-0.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Riise; Pennant (Hyypia, 79), Lucas, Alonso, Benayoun; Gerrard (Kuyt, 66); Torres (Crouch, 72). Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Babel.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Harper; Beye, Taylor, Faye, Enrique; Milner (Geremi, 44), Smith, Butt, N'Zogbia; Duff (Martins, 58) Owen. Substitutes not used: Forster (gk), Cacapa, Carroll.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Booked: Liverpool Riise.
Man of the match: Torres.
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