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Steven Gerrard magic ensures happy home debut for John W Henry

HE leapt out of his seat, punching the air in delight, completely immersing himself in his first experience of an Anfield European night.

What threatened at one stage to be a rather anti-climatic home debut for John W Henry turned out to be something rather more memorable and, as he left the famous old ground, Liverpool’s new owner will have realised he had witnessed something very special.

Down the years, the pages of this newspaper have been filled with tributes to and eulogies about Liverpool’s talismanic number eight, which makes it difficult to say something that hasn’t already been said about Steven Gerrard.

But perhaps the biggest compliment that you can pay him is that even after all these years, after 544 appearances, all those magnificent goals and the burgeoning honours’ list, Gerrard still has the ability to take the breath away.

Without him, Matchday four could easily have ended in demoralising fashion and left Liverpool with a fight on their hands to reach the knockout stages but now, thanks to 45 minutes of Gerrard operating at level others can only dream of, they are all but in the round of 32.

Given that Chelsea are due at Anfield in 48 hours, Roy Hodgson would have been loathe to use Gerrard against Napoli but, in some ways, all those who turned up in inclement conditions should be thankful that the manager pulled out the ace in his pack.

Gerrard, quite simply, made an evening that could have fizzled out like a damp squib go with a bang and the ovation he was afforded at the final whistle reflected that; deep admiration and appreciation were the underlying tones behind the Kop’s chant for him.

More than that, Gerrard’s efforts keep the momentum behind the sequence Liverpool are carefully piecing together and has provided a huge shot in the arm ahead of what could be a hugely significant showdown with the league leaders.

The difference a year makes. On this day 12 months ago, Liverpool supporters were coming to terms with the fact Lisandro Lopez had effectively knock Rafa Benitez’s men out of the Champions League and headed into the eye of the worst storm in the club’s 118-year history.

Things are now a little more tranquil but that might not have been true had Liverpool continued in the bitty, scruffy manner in which they began this contest – only Jay Spearing of the six men in front of the defence emerged with credit.

One man who particularly struggled in that period was Jonjo Shelvey; if his performance in Naples was a breath of fresh air, this one was, at best, clumsy and one careless ball almost led to the visitors going in front, earning him a stinging rebuke from Reina after Ezequiel Lavezzi fired wide.

Lavezzi, however, did not have long to wait to make amends, coolly slipping a shot under Reina after Edinson Cavani had taken fully advantage of poor headed clearance by Christian Poulsen – it was not the Danish midfielder’s first mistake nor, for that matter, was it his last.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of Liverpool’s play before the interval was when Gerrard – who might have anticipated having the evening off – was told to carry on warming up, the surest sign that Hodgson needed the services of his top man.

So it proved. Gerrard emerged during the break to continue his preparations and within eight seconds of the re-start, he announced himself to the contest by virtue of a clattering tackle.

But doesn’t it say something that, even after all these years, it is left to Gerrard to produce the unexpected? Shouldn’t a club of Liverpool’s stature have deeper options to call upon when things are not going to plan?

You know the answers to both those questions. For whatever reason, Liverpool’s get out of jail card remains the same as it was five, six or seven years ago and changing that is one of the tasks new Director of Football Strategy Damien Comolli must address as a matter of urgency.

Predictably, the skipper was the man who dragged Liverpool back into the game by the scruff of the neck and every time his side threatened, he was central to the action; first it was a deep ball into the penalty area that eventually led to Raul Meireles pulling a glorious chance wide.

Then came a free-kick which drifted just wide of the post after substitute Nathan Eccleston – whose pace and energy caused Napoli’s back three problems from the moment he was introduced – had been bundled over in a central area.

Having knocked on the door, it came as no surprise when his sheer will eventually found a way through, Gerrard’s presence unnerving Andrea Dossena into a mistake which enabled him to slide a shot past Morgan De Sanctis.

When Lucas was introduced shortly after, many would have assumed that Hodgson was effectively playing for a draw but Gerrard in this kind of form is a force of nature and he effortlessly went through the gears.

He could not have dispatched an 88th minute penalty any more emphatically – awarded after Johnson had been flattened – to complete the turnaround but he saved his best for last, dropping his shoulder to record his first hat-trick since March 2009. It was a wonderful finish but, then again, you wouldn’t expect anything else from a man who is just a football genius.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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