Berger sets out his stall

by Chris Lightbown of "The Sunday Times"

SOMETIMES players stamp an indelible mark on history and Patrik Berger did so on Thursday night.

For anybody who has not heard about the moment in the 18th minute of Liverpool's Cup Winners' Cup match, it went like this. A defender for MyPa-47, the Finnish opponents, passed forward somewhat sloppily and Berger pounced on the ball.

Before anybody realised what was happening, he swept the ball through the legs of another defender, took it into some space on the edge of the penalty area and swept a left-footed shot into the far corner of the net. As smoothly as that? More smoothly if anything, and that may be the least of it.

For Berger may truly be the right man in the right place at the right time. If you include the two goals he swept past Malta for the Czech Republic, Berger has now scored seven times in just three-and-a-half matches, statistics that will have West Ham's defenders chatting nervously among themselves this afternoon as they prepare to face the man-of-the-moment at Upton Park.

Berger's debut was against Southampton. He almost scored towards the end and his presence was a factor in Liverpool's stretching of a team they often find tricky. Against Leicester,, another side prone to upset Liverpool, Berger was astounding. Coming on as a half-time substitute in a match showing signs of slipping away from his team's grasp, he linked up with Steve McManaman to hound a defender off the ball, ran into space, took a pass from McManaman and whisked the ball home, again before more experienced opponents could latch on to what was happening.

The significance of all this is not just another foreigner scoring fancy goals. It is that Liverpool's tactics have become an albatross around their necks and Berger may just be the man to make them winners again.

Put simply, Liverpool pass too much. In some matches last season, they passed themselves into oblivion and for all that Collymore and Fowler notched a remarkable 55 goals between them, Liverpool finished the season with a reputation for passing wondrously when lesser mortals settled for lashing the ball into the net.

Enter Berger. At 22 he was already a league winner, in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, and although he did not fulfil the starring role anticipated in Euro 96, that seemed to be because Berger's very tendency to slash his way forward ran against the grain of the conservative tactics the Czech Republic adopted.

So Liverpool pounced. Berger has a sharp left foot, a rarity in the English game. He harasses defenders in a way few forwards do. Above all, he slashes through opponents, whereas Liverpool, immaculate as their passing is, tend to ooze round them, while neglecting to finish the job.

If Berger keeps it up, his combining with McManaman should give Liverpool enough edge to make their passing effective. The team's only consistently weak position is the left side of attack and that is precisely where Berger plays. He has visibly lightened Fowler's workrate and he is a passer, not a limelight hogger. He only takes those direct routes when they are his side's best option.

So is he the man to rescue Liverpool from themselves? There are doubts. Berger's reputation in the Czech Republic and Germany is that of a moody man who can turn brittle when dropped. Does he always follow instructions he does not agree with? Some of his previous coaches are not sure. Can he play a more restrained role, which, undoubtedly, Liverpool will have to get him to adopt at times? Another uncertainty.

But Liverpool are tantalisingly close to clicking. As were Manchester United when they bought an intelligent but temperamental foreigner who became brittle when dropped, but made sensational debuts. Eric Cantona turned Manchester United into winners. So is Berger Liverpool's Cantona? Hold your breath, wait and watch.

Copyright - The Sunday Times - 29 September 1996

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