ON the night they came to pay tribute to the man who made the people happy, at long, long last the people finally had something to smile about.
While Liverpool may not have been able to conjure up a display befitting the occasion, thanks to a combination of hard work and perseverance, the match closest to the 50th anniversary of Bill Shankly’s first as Liverpool manager was marked with a win.
This 2-1 dismissal of Wigan Athletic will live in the memory banks only for the fact some of the club’s most famous sons returned home, but there should be no underestimating its importance.
Having been caught in a maelstrom ever since Chelsea flattened them at Stamford Bridge on October 4, the Reds needed a helping hand from the footballing gods and, mercifully, they got one.
The night may have been billed as a celebration and the sight of heroes from the 1965 and 1974 FA Cup winning sides on the pitch before kick-off was designed to stir the crowd but, given what has happened recently, bonhomie was in short supply.
If anything, apprehension ruled; Anfield was eerily quiet for much of the contest, with little encouragement being offered from the stands; the first time it became apparent the stadium was full was when a loud groan greeted a misplaced Steven Gerrard pass.
Yet their apathy was understandable. Those who had made their way to the ground could scarcely believe the starting line-up did not include Fernando Torres, with many feeling Rafa Benitez had taken a gamble that was in danger of back firing.
No wonder. The mind instantly flashed back to those games in Torres’ first season when he was dropped to the bench against Portsmouth (away) and Birmingham (home) so he could have a rest; you will remember both ended in scoreless draws.
Had Liverpool fluffed their lines last night, the pressure on Benitez would have become almost intolerable, as his many critics would have seized upon Torres’ absence as another stick with which to beat the embattled Spaniard.
Torres, clearly, is still some way short of peak fitness and in all likelihood every week from now until the end of the season is going to be littered with bulletins on the groin problem which has proven so troublesome.
But Benitez, remember, is not a compulsive gambler and there is no chance with his team in such “a bad moment” that he would have sabotaged his own position by deciding to give his sharpest shooter a night on the touchline.
No. He has maintained all along that Torres will need managing to get him on the pitch as often as possible without undergoing surgery and if it means he cannot start two games in the space of four days, that particular pill must be swallowed.
Thankfully the man who took over from him was up to the task; David Ngog has improved in leaps and bounds in the past couple of months and his decisive intervention after 10 minutes helped settle nerves.
Fabio Aurelio’s inviting cross from the right touchline demanded a finishing touch be applied and Ngog took advantage of Chris Kirkland’s indecision to glance a deft header into an unguarded net.
It would be wrong to start making bold predictions about what Ngog might do in the future but for a 20-year-old to have scored six goals already at this stage of the season in a team that is struggled is a hardly a bad return, is it?
People are right to lament the board’s failure to give Benitez the cash he needed in the summer to buy a second proven striker but the young Frenchman has done everything he possibly can to take some of the pressure off.
He was central to Liverpool’s best moments as an attacking force during a first period that could be kindly described as uneventful and, with better fortune, Ngog might have doubled his tally before the break.
Full of running and youthful enthusiasm, Ngog dragged one chance the wrong side of the post after seizing on an Aurelio pass which ricocheted off Hendry Thomas, while he also turned provider for Dirk Kuyt but the Dutchman’s shot was beaten out by Kirkland.
His critics say he is not strong enough to cope with the intensity of 90 minutes yet and Benitez has admitted regular sessions in the gym are pencilled in to build Ngog up, but he started the second period just as strongly as he finished the first.
Evidence of that came when, on 51 minutes, he and Kuyt combined thrillingly on the right, Ngog firing an instant cross back to his strike partner after an adroit flick sent him scurrying away; unfortunately, Kirkland’s parry was as spectacular.
There is no doubt much of the ovation that swept around the stadium when he was replaced by Torres midway through the second period was for Liverpool’s number nine but few could dispute Ngog’s efforts deserved recognition.
As much as Liverpool were pressing for that all important second goal, however, you never once felt the situation was one with which the crowd were comfortable, every stray pass or skewed drive being greeted with exasperated groans.
Never was that more evident than when Jamie Carragher was forced to pass back to Pepe Reina from just inside his own half, as there were no options available to him in midfield and the closer they got to full time, the more uncomfortable it became.
Anfield’s inspirational qualities have been lauded on these pages many times before but, in times of adversity, the expectation with which the club is burdened can almost become suffocating and there is no disputing the crowd was close to turning.
Heaven knows what might have happened had Wigan substitute Jason Scotland found the back of the net rather than hitting the bar when presented with an open goal but, fortunately, we will never know as Torres came up trumps just when he was needed.
Charles N’Zogbia did his best to cause palpitations when squeezing a shot past Reina in injury time but Liverpool were able to cling on to three precious points; they must be used as the first shoots of recovery.
Copyright - Liverpool Echo
Final score Liverpool 2 – 1
(HT 1 – 0)
Bookings Mascherano 77
Liverpool's Percentage Wigan Athletic's Percentage
Goal attempts 18
On target 8
Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Daniel Agger, Fabio Aurelio (Lucas Leiva, 61), Emiliano Insua, Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel, Steven Gerrard, Yossi Benayoun (Alberto Aquilani, 81), Javier Mascherano, Dirk Kuyt, David N'Gog (Fernando Torres, 64)
Wigan Athletic Chris Kirkland, Paul Scharner, Emmerson Boyce, Titus Bramble, Mario Melchiot, Maynor Figueroa, Hendry Thomas, Charles N'Zogbia, Garcia Jordi Gomez (Jason Koumas, 83), Mohamed Diame (Jason Scotland, 59), Hugo Rodallega
Referee Dowd, P