MAKE or break. Rafa Benitez had suggested Tottenham’s visit to Anfield last night would do one or the other to Liverpool’s season but instead it did both.
In taking three points off a side who have designs of nudging them out of the Champions League places, the Reds have gone some way to ensuring the remainder of the campaign will have a real purpose.
But after seeing Dirk Kuyt bookend a terrific performance with a brace of goals, the Reds have broken all theories that they are in a state of disrepair; in dumping Harry Redknapp’s men on their backside, Benitez saw his players blow open the race for fourth place.
From the moment the team coach trundled into Anfield Road it was evident that team and fans would be as one.
Crowds gathered on each side of the pavement to form a guard of honour, with huge banners fluttering in the night breeze and the words on the one nearest to the Shankly Gates said it all – ‘Scouse Solidarity’.
To further increase the siege mentality, another banner declared ‘Rafa Benitez – God’s Gift 2 Liverpool’, while effigies of the clubs many legends were omnipresent; Liverpool’s players could not have asked for any more inspiration.
It was, all told, a scene more in keeping with a Champions League semi-final rather than a middle of the season, midweek Premier League game but this was no ordinary fixture; Liverpool had to win.
Experience has shown Benitez does not ‘do’ hyperbole before a game; if anything, he eschews fanning flames at all costs so the fact he described this contest in such powerful tones showed the enormity.
Nerves, undoubtedly, were bound to jangle before kick-off and that has frequently led to an atmosphere of apprehension but, fortunately, Liverpool got the flying start Benitez, his players and supporters craved.
Pepe Reina’s skills as a footballer, just as much as goalkeeping ability, have been noted on many occasions but there was nothing remotely dexterous about the ball he lumped downfield after six minutes.
Thoughts of a goal were remote as it hung in the air but thanks to a combination of persistence, hunger and determination, Alberto Aquilani and Kuyt fashioned a chance that the Dutchman was able to sweep past Heurelho Gomes in front of The Kop.
Kuyt has endured a stamina sapping campaign which has nullified his effectiveness yet, in the absence of Fernando Torres, he is Liverpool’s most experienced front-runner – what’s more, his commitment is never in doubt.
So, in many ways, it was fitting he became the first man to put his name on the scoresheet; his was never going be a performance where Liverpool played slick, quick, triangles or they passed Tottenham in to a stupor.
No. This was a night to run and tackle, chase and charge, to show the world that they should not be written off and, in the first 45 minutes, nobody could be accused of failing to put in the hard yards.
All over the pitch there were unlikely heroes. Maybe it was down to Jamie Carragher continually putting a flea in his ear but Philipp Degen showed more great tenacity, withstanding a battering from Tottenham’s left side.
Sotirios Kyrgiakos was another, building on his encouraging performance at the Britannia Stadium, by launching himself at anything that came his way in the air or on the ground, endearing himself to a one-time sceptical public with every challenge.
Then there was Carragher himself. If ever a game was designed for him to shine in this was it and one moment in first half injury time not only encapsulated his many qualities, it further galvanised an already pumped up crowd.
From the moment he started pursuing a loose ball on the Main Stand touchline there was a certain inevitability about what would happen, but the sight of the Reds’ skipper charging past Niko Kranjcar and Gareth Bale to win a corner was hugely inspiring.
If there was a downside to the performance in the first 45 minutes it was the failure to convert their superiority into a second goal, a theme which has proven so costly on numerous occasions this season.
Half chances came and went before Howard Webb brought things to a temporary halt but after the restart, a similar pattern was followed.
With better fortune, Albert Riera would have settled nerves long before Kuyt did but his header from Carragher’s cross was an inch too high and rattled the crossbar instead of hitting the Anfield Road end net.
He, like his team deserved better. Though there is no disputing he is inconsistent, Riera clearly has a stack of talent and this – his first start since November 9 – was as good as he has played since scoring that blockbuster in the 5-0 demolition of Aston Villa last March.
Another Albert(o), meanwhile, started to show why Benitez paid Roma such a huge fee for his services; all clever touches and sharp passes, Aquilani thoroughly deserved the standing ovation he was afforded when his night ended on 79 minutes.
Yet despite the fantastic energy and relentless running, still the buffer for which they yearned would not arrive; Riera sent a left-foot drive whistling over the bar, Kuyt missed when it was easier to score, Kyrgiakos should have done better and ditto David Ngog.
Happily, however, there was no sting in the tail with Kuyt emphatically smashing a re-taken penalty home in injury time, after substitute Ngog had been chopped down by Sebastian Bassong, to put the gloss on a great night. The key now is not to waste it.
TOTTENHAM boss Harry Redknapp hailed the Kop as “the most amazing sight in football” after seeing his side beaten 2-0 by Liverpool last night.
The Spurs manager believes the Reds were inspired by the red-hot atmosphere generated all around Anfield by a vociferous capacity crowd.
“You have to give credit where it’s due, Liverpool worked their socks off. They closed us down and pressed us,” Redknapp said.
"I have said before you never get an easy game here.
"You stand out there and hear the crowd sing - it's the most amazing sight in football, and it lifts the players.
"I said to my players 'Don't think they are going to come out here and give a half-hearted performance because they have got some good players missing.
"Their players responded to the crowd and deserved the win in fairness.
“Dirk Kuyt never stopped working and chasing, the whole team played with great enthusiasm."
LIVERPOOL: Reina; Carragher, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Insua; Lucas, Mascherano; Degen (Darby 90), Aquilani (Ngog 79), Riera (Rodriguez 81); Kuyt. Not used: Cavalieri, Babel, Spearing, Pacheco.
TOTTENHAM HOSTPUR: Gomes; Corluka (Hutton 61), Dawson, King (Bassong 81), Bale; Modric, Palacios, Jenas, Kranjcar (Keane 65); Crouch, Defoe. Not used: Alnwick, Pavlyuchenko, Dos Santos, Rose.
REFEREE: Howard Webb.
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