Deadly blend of Torres and Gerrard exposes a gulf in assets and spirit
By Andy Hunter at Anfield
One has an owner so unpopular his relatives cannot enter a public house without compromising their safety, the other an owner so gregarious he buys the lagers for supporters and applies the same populist logic to managerial appointments. In a season dominated by the boardroom it has been easy for Liverpool and Newcastle to forget who really shapes their immediate futures and emotions. The reminder that it is not Tom Hicks, George Gillett or Mike Ashley united the clubs at Anfield, though it was a painful awakening for those in black and white.
As Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard sent a statement of intent to Internazionale by inspiring Liverpool's fifth successive win since Barnsley began collecting FA Cup scalps, the club's co-owner, Hicks, issued a statement of his own to deny claims Dubai International Capital would accept 49% of Gillett's stake as a means towards gaining majority control at Anfield. Newcastle's chairman, Chris Mort, meanwhile, sank ever deeper in a directors' seat, while Ashley's chin disappeared beneath an overcoat as black as his team's performance and aura.
Owners have finance on their minds, not the natural talent to inspire or the tactical acumen to succeed or fail. Anfield illustrated that perfectly. If Liverpool are to be redeemed with Champions League qualification and an extended run in this season's competition - Internazionale warmed up for tomorrow's return leg with a 2-0 victory over Reggina - then it is the freedom Rafael Benítez has recently afforded his captain and the brilliance of Torres that will carry them. Similar responsibility applies to Kevin Keegan, although Newcastle's momentum is dragging them in another direction.
Seven league games into the "Third Coming" of Keegan Newcastle have taken two points from a possible 21 and now lie three points above the relegation zone. They undoubtedly possess superior individual talent to every team beneath them but, when not even Keegan can galvanise passion and confidence - and, for all the manager's tactical shortcomings, he is not bereft in that department - the club are in serious danger of implosion.
Pressure that has broken Keegan in the past, and which Ashley must have considered when seduced by sentimentality in January, is growing on Newcastle. Home games with Fulham, Reading and Sunderland could be crucial. The man himself is showing no sign of cracking. Indeed, in the accurate assessment he gave of Newcastle's weaknesses at Anfield, Keegan spoke with clarity about the task ahead.
Referring to his first brush with success at St James' Park, the Newcastle manager said: "My belief is we can make it happen again but it didn't happen last time as quickly as people imagine. For the fans at the moment it might look a long way off, for the players it might and for the staff it might, but I can see it. I have 3½ years to try and win a trophy; that's my objective to do it. I don't think it will be a league title because of the vast gap that exists now. That gap didn't exist before."
As for himself, Keegan added: "I'm fine. I go in every day and I have enthusiasm. No problem. It is a bigger job than I thought now. Winning four matches out of 16 is not a big ask, but winning four out of nine is a lot different."
Keegan attempted to match Benítez's 4-2-3-1 system but the gulf in spirit and tempo was glaring. Whereas in Nicky Butt (33), Alan Smith (27), Damien Duff (29) and Michael Owen (28) Newcastle were reliant on players diminished by injury or age and who have all been sold by bigger clubs, Liverpool's younger and more vibrant heart of Xabi Alonso, Lucas Leiva, Gerrard and Torres flourished. Outrageous luck opened the floodgates for Liverpool when Luis Enrique's clearance ricocheted in off Jermaine Pennant, but outstanding combinations between Gerrard and Torres reflected the unquestioned superiority of a side chopping a path through its own troubles. "Gerrard has more freedom playing behind Torres and doesn't have to run back 30 or 40 metres," said Benítez. "With that freedom and the quality going forward, he is unstoppable."
Man of the match: Fernando Torres
A constant threat and, notably for a foreign striker with 25 goals in his debut English season, a great team player
Best moment: The glorious dummy that produced his goal and prompted some to compare it to Pele's in the 1970 World Cup. Preposterous, of course - Pele missed
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