Hodgson goes through the motions on drab Euro night

Liverpool 0-0 Utrecht
Wednesday, 15th December 2010

June 21, 2010 - Nyon, SWITZERLAND - epa02214375 The Europa League trophy is shown, prior the drawing of the games for the Europa League 2010/11 First qualifying round, at the UEFA Headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, Monday, June 21, 2010. (KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi.

Playing at home. Qualification for the knock-out stages secure. The result largely meaningless. Under such circumstances it might be considered reasonable to expect an enterprising, care-free performance. Or at least to witness a team willing to have a go with the pressure off.

Not the case for this Liverpool side. An overly cautious, uninspiring, insipid display from an, admittedly weakened, Liverpool side did little to boost the stock of a much-maligned Roy Hodgson. Liverpool playing out a drab goalless draw with FC Utrecht, in their final Europa League group stage fixture.

In fact the evening’s entertainment was so dull and lifeless, even the hoards of youngsters around Anfield – allowed in admission free as a gesture from the club’s owners – could consider themselves rather short-changed.

This was every inch a Liverpool side going through the motions whilst taking the opportunity to further blood a few youngsters. Under different circumstances this could perhaps be considered acceptable. In fact, to an extent it was an acceptable approach.

But this is a Liverpool team – and even more so, a Liverpool manager – struggling for form and labouring to win the confidence and backing of the fans. Therefore, this was an opportunity, if only a minor one, to send out a positive message and generate help generate an upbeat mood around Anfield.

Hodgson’s win ratio since taking over in the hot seat is difficult to defend. The Reds had mustered just 12 victories from 27 games in all competitions so far this season, going into this one. And even that record is somewhat skewed by the 4 victories achieved in the qualifying rounds of this competition.

Another reason, if any were needed, for Hodgson’s men to take the game to a distinctly average Utrecht side – off the pace in their domestic league and already certain of European elimination.

It was not to be, however. And Hodgson’s final team selection was even more baffling than the lacklustre display which was to follow. Having gone to great lengths to stress that both Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina would be starting; the manager proceeded to leave both on the bench for the entirety.

Perhaps a ploy to boost the attendance for an unappealing match? Although, Hodgson did confirm afterwards that he had been convinced to make a u-turn on team selection by his medical staff. Who obviously must have a significant say in team selection.

Nonetheless, it did give the chance for some promising youngsters to gain some vital minutes on the pitch for the first team. Whilst none claim to have genuinely stood out, Jonjo Shelvey was tidy in the centre of midfield. Dani Pacheco was a breath of fresh air when introduced in the second half in place of Nathan Eccleston – who seemed often too keen to impress.

Danny Wilson’s performance was probably the most encouraging of the evening, though. The young Scot had looked unsure and vulnerable at times during sparse previous outings. But he was solid and assured here. Outshining his defensive partners – both Martin Skrtel and Sotirios Kyrgiakos. Albeit against a Utrecht side who posed little threat.

Wilson could have also added a goal. His header from a first half corner directed just over the bar. Milan Jovanovic had earlier come the closest anyone would to finding the net, on 8 minutes.

The Serb is perhaps unlucky to be something of the forgotten man of the Hodgson era. His direct run infield opened up the opportunity to crack a drive against the crossbar, with Michel Vorm beaten.

However, there really was very little to warm the hearts of the crowd on a chilly Anfield evening. And even the cries of “Attack, Attack!” from the Kop did little to encourage an improvement after the break.

Liverpool were often far too content to sit deep and rarely committed sufficient bodies forward to support, an often isolated, Ryan Babel in the final third. Joe Cole struggled to make any sort of impression and the Reds generally lacked incisiveness and intent.

With Utrecht often content to do similar, it made for dour viewing. The Dutch outfit lost their main goal threat Ricky van Wolfswinkel to an unfortunate injury towards the end of the first half. And rarely looked like breaking the deadlock themselves.

Babel shot across goal and wide soon after the interval. Whilst the same man could not quite get the touch required to divert the ball goalwards from Martin Kelly’s excellent cross, later in the half.

As the game laboured to its inevitable outcome, Cole’s effort from 8 yards was blocked by a visiting defender, after Fabio Aurelio’s cross had been knocked into his path. And later Cole could not adjust his body to connect with another, deflected, Aurelio cross, from close range

In the dying moments of the, some good footwork from winger, Dries Mertens almost presented Utrecht with a chance. But Kelly sensed the danger with the visitors sensing a famous victory. Brad Jones comfortably collecting a subsequent shot.

And the culmination of another listless, uninspiring performance was greeted less than graciously by a disappointed home crowd at the final whistle.

Man of the Match
It really was slim pickings. But the Scot had his best game in Red shirt to date and showed some encouraging signs.

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