Sunday, 31 January 2010

LIVERPOOL FC: Classic Greek shows ancient art of defending

Football - Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur Barclays Premier League


WHEN it was announced Sotirios Kyrgiakos was on his way to Anfield his signing was seen as a symbol of everything that is wrong at Liverpool under Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

The cut-price Greek from AEK Athens, who had previously failed to set the world alight at Rangers, was taken as just further proof that the debt-loading co-owners were forcing the manager Rafa Benitez to shop for signings in the bargain bin.

Lucky then, that Benitez managed to buy a gem from the supermarket section signposted 'has-beens' and 'not wanted'.

And ironic, too, with Hicks, who had flown in unannounced, and was subjected to protests from fans after the game, watching from the stands.

The arrival of 30-year-old Kyrgiakos in August was greeted with all the enthusiasm that met Graeme Souness’s signing of little-known Hungarian midfielder Istvan Kozma 17 years earlier.

And while it’s true that Benitez may have been better served by his first-choice targets of Matthew Upson and Michael Turner, the Spaniard can rest easy in the knowledge that his 6ft 4ins centre half is unlikely to ever be voted the fourth worst Premier League player of all time, as Kozma was by Times Online.

Instead, the defender signed from AEK Athens is fast becoming a cult hero amongst the Kop faithful - it says it all that fans are already trying to agree on the best song for the stopper.

The £1.5million man has come into the side at the worst time – and produced the best response: fight.

He might be more battle than brilliance but that’s exactly what was required to get Liverpool out of their recent rut.

Against Stoke and Wolves, the man brought in to replace Sami Hyypia pulled off a passable impression of the popular Finn, winning everything in the air, rallying the troops and even getting on the scoresheet against the Potters.

It was a similar showing against Bolton – and one that typified Liverpool’s dogged display.

Kevin Davies is regarded as one of the Premier League’s toughest opponents – the fact he is always around the top of the charts for both fouls committed and fouls against tells its own story.

He is central to Bolton’s up and at 'em approach - yet at Anfield he was barely visible, so deep was he in Kyrgiakos’s pocket.

Not that Owen Coyle’s side were without a goal threat, in the first half at least.

It was the Trotters that were first to threaten to blot the scoresheet when Tamir Cohen was set free in the box. But the midfielder – a Liverpool fan thanks to dad Avi, an ex-Red – dithered and Pepe Reina closed the angle and was able to block the Israeli’s effort.

Next it was Chung-Yong Lee to bring Bolton’s modest travelling support to their feet. The Korean robbed the much-improved Emiliano Insua, glided past Martin Skrtel and had the beating of that man Kyrgiakos – or so it seemed.

But it was not the case. Because as Reina scrambled and the 21-year-old sidefooted what looked to be the opener, the Greek reappeared to block on the line and build on Liverpool’s impressive recent form in defence – that’s just one goal conceded in six Premier League games now.

Liverpool huffed and puffed in the first half and much of their play was disjointed and sloppy, with Alberto Aquilani in particular struggling to find his passing range.

Yet it was the Italian who played a key role in the opening goal eight minutes before half time, the £17million man heading across the face of goal from a searching Insua cross to allow the ever-industrious Dirk Kuyt to prod home his ninth goal of the season.

The second-half was much improved with Steven Gerrard, who had struggled to shake off the shackles of man marker Patrice Muamba in the first 45 minutes, playing with more freedom.

The skipper, for the first time in a long time, looked more like his old, swashbuckling self, and could easily have got on the scoresheet in the second half with more precise finishing.

It was not only his shooting that had returned. Gerrard seemed more willing to run at defenders, too, exemplified by one dazzling display of dribbling that left Bolton’s Zat Knight tied up in knots.

David Ngog should have made things easier for a twitchy Anfield crowd after one Gerrard effort which Wanderers keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen could only parry straight into the path of the French striker.

The open goal was gaping but as home supporters drew breath for the inevitable cheer they could only gasp in disbelief as the 20-year-old somehow missed from six yards, his scuffed shot bouncing to safety off the Bolton bar.

If that was considered bad luck there was more than a hint of fortune about Liverpool’s second goal which all but sealed the victory in the 70th minute.

By then Lucas had replaced the ineffectual Aquilani and the Brazilian can be pleased with a decent cameo after a recent dip in form.

It was the midfielder who some fans have made a hobby out of deriding who did well to head back a cross from a short corner to Ngog who in turn teed up Insua for a shot.

The Argentine’s drive looked to be heading wide until it took a wicked deflection off Kevin Davies, leaving Jaaskelainen wrong footed and Liverpool on their way to a sixth game unbeaten in the Premier League.

With Everton up next, and another aerial battle on the cards, Kyrgiakos must fancy his chances of another start in the centre of Liverpool’s defence.

And if substance over style means another Anfield victory for Benitez’s side, there won’t be too many complaints from the Red half of Merseyside.

Liverpool: Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Aquilani (Lucas 65min), Mascherano, Gerrard, Kuyt, Riera (Rodriguez), Ngog (Babel 84min).

Bolton: Jaaskelainen, Steinsson, Cahill, Knight, Ricketts, Muamba, (Elmander 78min), Lee, Cohen (Gardner 60min), M Davies, Taylor, (Weiss 65min), K Davies.

Att: 43,413