THE clock in the corner of the Kop had just turned six when Anfield was treated to the kind of sumptuous moment that only happens when geniuses combine.
Seizing possession on the halfway line, Steven Gerrard cast a quick glance forward before delivering a laser-guided through ball to Fernando Torres, who had evaded the attentions of his markers to skip clear.
Without breaking stride, Torres nonchalantly hoisted the ball over the head of stranded goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann into the back of the Wolverhampton Wanderers’ net to leave the majority of a 41,956 crowd gasping in disbelief.
Before they had chance to start cheering and serenading Torres with his ‘Liverpool’s number nine’ hymn, however, an assistant referee’s fluttering flag quickly put an end to the revelry; Torres, unfortunately, had strayed a fraction offside.
In many ways, though, it was a passage of play which summed up Liverpool’s turbulent campaign, in that it promised much, threatened to be brilliant but, ultimately, left everyone feeling flat and frustrated.
When the final ball of the campaign is kicked next May, it is inevitably that the overwhelming feeling amongst supporters will be about what might have been but to what extent will be determined in the next eight Premier League games.
Having eventually got the better of a Wolves team that were all persistence and determination, Liverpool could well have received the boost of confidence which they have been crying out for during the past month.
For much of the first 45 minutes on Boxing night, Liverpool looked set to suffer more heartache, as their failure to poke their noses in front early on led to poor passing, no movement and an increased sense of anxiety.
Had they fallen behind during Wolves’ most productive spell of the contest, when Sylvan Ebanks-Blake drilled a shot straight at Pepe Reina and Kevin Doyle fluffed a free header, this report could have assumed the tone of another post-mortem.
In many ways, it had echoes of what happened at Portsmouth; the Reds may have kept possession well but when the early goal they craved never arrived, thing started to go askew and a better side than Wolves would have taken full advantage.
Fortunately that wasn’t the case; the second half was much better and, though this is said with some caution, suggested that Liverpool are poised to emerge from their bleak mid-winter and rejoin the battle for Champions League qualification.
Admittedly, they received a helping hand when match official Andre Marriner sent off Wolves’ defender Stephen Ward for two bookable offences after consulting with one of his assistants, having been besieged by a posse of Liverpool players.
It was perhaps unedifying for some to see Pepe Reina hurtle 80 yards from his goal to speak with Marriner and others badger him but he deserves criticism himself for allowing the situation to unfold.
Ward was asking for trouble when he tangled with Lucas, so soon after yanking Yossi Benayoun back, but Marriner appeared to lose his nerve when realising he would have to send the left-back off.
Marriner threatened to make himself a laughing stock when booking Christophe Berra but he at least arrived at the right decision and as soon as Wolves had a numerical disadvantage, it quickly became apparent that they were fighting a losing battle.
A failure to capitalise on the situation could have been catastrophic in terms of where Liverpool go in the New Year so the impact Gerrard’s majestic header – a bullet that Emiliano Insua’s fabulous cross demanded – should not be underestimated.
This might not have been Gerrard at his rampaging best but he showed enough in this performance to suggest it won’t be long before he moves through the gears again to be the Reds’ driving force.
His tackling had a bite, his passing was in the main assured but most impressive was the header which nestled in Hahnemann’s net and triggered an explosion of relief, both personally and collectively.
Beaming from ear to ear and sprinting to the Main Stand, it was clear to see how much Gerrard enjoyed the moment but it was no wonder.
“It was all about waiting for the breakthrough,” he said afterwards. “We knew if we had belief it would come. When you’re not getting the results it’s going to affect confidence. The players are hurting at the moment and we want to put it right.”
To do that, then, they are going to have to take the impetus from this second half showing into the seismic encounter at Villa Park tomorrow night.
How Benitez approaches it – does he play Alberto Aquilani from the start again? – only he will know but to come away with three points, everyone from back to front will have to raise their levels further still, while showing composure and concentration.
Glen Johnson, for instance, could do with casting a glance to his left to watch the unruffled way Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger are going about their business, while Lucas must be ready to deal with the responsibility that will be placed on his shoulders.
Meanwhile, it is hoped Benayoun – the game’s other scorer – emerges from the lull he has endured since suffering a hamstring problem in early November to be a hub of creative ingenuity, as he has been so often during this calendar year.
But should it all click together in the West Midlands, it would be no surprise if Liverpool were to then go and “win a lot of games in a row” as Benitez expects will be the case in the second half of the season.
Put a sequence together in the next seven weeks and the Reds will most certainly be back on track.
Nobody, of course, will be making bold predictions but if Gerrard and Torres doing for real what an assistant referee’s flag ruined on Saturday, anything will be possible – and Liverpool will find themselves on the road to redemption.
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua; Lucas, Aquilani (Kuyt 76); Benayoun (Spearing 88), Gerrard, Aurelio (Pacheco 84); Torres. Goals: Gerrard (62) Benayoun 70).
WOLVES (4-4-2): Hahnemann; Stearman, Craddock, Berra, S Ward; Foley, Henry, Jarvis, Milijas (Mancienne 62); Doyle (Elokobi 58), Ebanks-Blake (Iwlelumo 66). Bookings: Ward (48) Sent off: Ward (53).
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