FOR 12 months everyone associated with the Reds has been in a daze, heads cabbaged by a Luis Suarez puff of smoke making its way from Melwood to the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, writes PHIL BROOKES-LENNON.
Liverpool supporters’ love for strikers dates back to our dads’ heroes, their dads’ heroes, their dads’ dads’ heroes…. anyway you get the picture.
From Billy Liddell to John Toshack, Kevin Keegan to Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler to Michael Owen (meh), Fernando Torres and finally to the Uruguayan himself.
No club in England has been spoilt with such an array of striking talent and we love an idol with danger in his boots and, to paraphrase Monty Python, we should know one when he comes along because we’ve seen a few.
But despite trying and failing last campaign to coax Mario Balotelli into the striker his ability warrants, Liverpool went into the close season with fans looking for someone to look to fill the void left by Suarez, someone to fill the songbook.
So to the signing of Christian Benteke our £32.5m new number nine.
Having been mooted well before last season’s shambles was brought to a close, the signing of the 24-year-old Belgian international was met in some quarters with reaction ranging from slight trepidation to outright hostility.
Brendan Rodgers quote Benteke is a bargain and going to score goals.
What a prediction from a man who bought Ricky Lambert.
— Chris massey (@massambula1969) August 1, 2015
Benteke is good with arial balls no doubt but overall he is a lazy striker, there strikers waaaaaay better than him.
— Brother Man (@Sir_TM) July 16, 2015
Won’t fit our system, too lazy (that old chestnut), injury prone, not ‘a Liverpool player’ the list goes on.
What people really meant to say was ‘he’s not Luis Suarez’ and do you know what? That’s ok because nobody is.
Suarez is a special player, the best, probably in the top five ever to pull on a red shirt and easily the third best player in the world right now.
Steven Gerrard, who’s played alongside Fowler, Owen, Voronin and the wrecking machine that was peak form Fernando Torres, said he was the best he’d ever played with. But again that’s ok, too.
Imagine the fume if The Middle Earth of the social media world that is Twitter had been around when we replaced Keegan with Dalglish or Rushy with Aldridge? Imagine the implosion had we replaced a 40 goal-a-season striker with a fella pushing his 30s from Oxford?
Suarez was a joy to watch, a force of nature. To be able to say you were around as a fan when he played for us is something to be proud of — how we watched him grow, how he mesmerised the opposition as he drove the rest of his mates on.
Such as Stoke 3 Liverpool 5 — a typical barmy game from our 13-14 season. Goals everywhere, and not bothered about the back because we all knew we’d score more than them. Two nil up then pegged back to 2-2 then up again before nearly throwing it away at the end, but we knew we always had the ace up the sleeve in a once in a generation player who didn’t know what the concept of giving up was.
And so to yesterday and Benteke.
Seventy seven days on from THAT capitulation there, the game ends with Liverpool winning a goal to nil and taking three points home in the opening game of a new campaign.
Opening day wins are the best kind of wins, and while he didn’t make the headlines, the victory was achieved largely by the presence of Benteke.
Playing teams who sit back and allow you to have the ball is great when you have all the time in the world to pass it out and through midfield but yesterday was different.
Naturally, after handing us our backsides a couple of months or so ago, Mark Hughes (a canny manager, who has quietly done a fantastic job at the Potteries — no more the cloggers of yesteryear) played on the front foot with Diouf pushed up against our centre backs, the intention being to suffocate the space high up the pitch and pressure a potentially nervy Liverpool in a position where we could be hurt.
Stoke intention was to bully and humiliate Liverpool into submission as they did last time, and they got their eye well and truly wiped, because this time, Liverpool had an answer.
We didn’t just have an out-ball, we had THE out-ball.
Two things stuck out massively yesterday, the first was the lack of ‘fannying around’ at the back, the second, was when we decided to clear our lines, more often that not, it stayed cleared.
The option to use Benteke to take the pressure off our back four was used to great effect and the Belgian didn’t disappoint, diligently and intelligently patrolling the space in front of the Stoke defence, pulling it left and right to provide an option to relieve the pressure gauge.
And when it came, it stuck — Benteke winning the vast majority of his battles and using the ball intelligently to retain possession. It was a selfless display of a striker not desperate to steal the show.
As good as the 13-14 version of the Liverpool vintage was, dogging it in such a fashion was not in the armoury. We blitzed you and then we blitzed you again.
All well and good when you have a world-class talent turning and twisting the minds of the opposition, but what happens when this doesn’t work? When the Wurlitzer wanders off to Spain and his sidekick has an horrific run of luck with injuries?
The ball comes back, time and time again, the game gets stretched, a game plan built on confidence is decimated and without a dominant custodian, panic can, and will, set in.
Sometimes, you need to win by attrition. Both Martin Skrtel and the reinvigorated Dejan Lovren looked more comfortable in the face of aggression than they ever have done as a partnership — they had time to organise, to breathe and keep a calm head sitting in the middle of a pair of brand new full-backs, including a rookie who’s barely old enough to shave.
And given the run of fixtures that Liverpool are steaming into before the new year, a victory to nil away at a perennial thorn in the side should never be underestimated. The option to not have to ‘out football’ Arsenal, the option TO get into a fight with Chelsea, to bombard United and their fragile backline? That price tag suddenly doesn’t seem so big.
Clean sheets build confidence and let’s not forget, Liverpool invented defending from the front. No-one is saying that we should sacrifice our principles to obliterate the cannon fodder but confidence is bred from results. The understanding that was lacking in forward areas will only improve as Benteke’s team mates, some of them new additions themselves, get into the rhythm of this Liverpool side.
Stating the bleeding obvious, but Benteke, despite having far more ability than he is given credit for, is never and will never be Luis Suarez. The list of people who are or could be is equal to Chelsea’s points total so far. And with a near one in two ratio, Christian Benteke IS guaranteed to get Liverpool goals and win Liverpool games. And that’s OK with me.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo