Captain Fantastic rescues Reds

LIVERPOOL captain Steven Gerrard came to his side’s aid once again as his late hat-trick inspired the side to a Europa League victory against Napoli which highlighted the gulf in class within the squad.

The Reds were behind to Ezequiel Lavezzi’s goal after a dire first-half performance but the midfielder’s introduction at the interval changed the dynamic. Gerrard scored three goals in the final 15 minutes to extend Liverpool’s lead at the top of Group K. It also made it two wins and two draws in the last four matches.

Gerrard played down his own role. “The manager asked me to come on and see if I could help get the lads back in it. Every one of the lads in the second half was just fantastic.

“For the first goal when you’re put in against a giant of a goalkeeper you’ve just got to go in and hope for the best. There was no class involved, just determination and desire and I don’t think the keeper fancied it.”

Reds boss Roy Hodgson hailed Gerrard’s contribution.

“I thought we were unlucky to be 1-0 down at half-time,” he said. “We showed an awful lot of character and determination in the second half and it took some Steven Gerrard magic, and courage and determination, which I thought epitomised our second-half performance. He was the catalyst.”

That Gerrard made such a difference highlighted the deficiencies on the playing staff at Anfield, with the side operating for most of the second half with five central midfielders in a variety of other positions.

Newly-appointed director of football strategy Damien Comolli will have been disappointed with how quickly Liverpool were put on the back foot in the first half.

Lavezzi looked dangerous from the start and his shot forced a corner off Paul Konchesky, with his next intervention releasing Edinson Cavani through the inside-left channel only for the Uruguayan to blaze over.

The Reds cracked in the 28th minute. Christian Poulsen’s aimless back-header in the centre circle was picked up by Cavani on the left and he slipped a pass through to Lavezzi who calmly steered the ball under Reina.

The response was for David Ngog to stab wide from Poulsen’s pass.

Hodgson sent Gerrard on for the second half for Milan Jovanovic.

Gerrard curled a free-kick just wide from the edge of the box but it was his sheer determination which brought the equaliser in the 75th minute.

Shelvey’s run appeared to be petering out when Dossena did his former club a huge favour by diverting the ball towards De Sanctis. Gerrard charged in to divert the ball past the goalkeeper.

Salvatore Aronica’s 88th-minute trip on Johnson presented Gerrard with a penalty to double his tally and he duly obliged.

Gerrard completed his hat-trick dinking the ball over De Sanctis from substitute Lucas Leiva’s through-ball.

LIVERPOOL: Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Konchesky, Poulsen (Eccleston 65), Spearing, Shelvey, Meireles, Jovanovic (Gerrard 46), Ngog (Lucas 82).

NAPOLI: De Sanctis, Campagnaro, Cannavaro, Aronica, Maggio, Pazienza, Gargano, Dossena, Hamsik (Yebda 84), Lavezzi, Cavani. Subs Not Used: Gianello, Grava,

Ref: Fredy Fautrel (France).

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