Reason for optimism
The form of David Ngog gives Liverpool a small cause to be happy, according to Peter Fraser.
Last Updated: 27/11/09 2:17pm
On Wednesday lunchtime I was in a group of around 20 people in the tunnel that leads to the pitch at Anfield and, with canned crowd sound-effects playing over a public address system, we were being asked by a tour guide to pretend we were members of a Liverpool team.
Awkward you say? Not half. This was not some form of warped dream. It was real and was so camp I was half expecting Widow Twankey to emerge from behind a curtain. The reason was a pre-booked walkabout of the Reds' home as a birthday present for my younger brother which, following Tuesday night's events in the UEFA Champions League, would probably only have been matched for celebratory atmosphere by a trip to Paul Hart's house when news of his sacking by Portsmouth was quickly followed by a call to say that his cat had been run over.
Anyway, as we went through the pantomime at Anfield, our tour guide, Dave, lined us up and gave all members of the group imaginary names based on a resemblance to Liverpool players past and present. Dave got a good laugh from the party with a swipe at the above-mentioned sibling's trendy hairstyle, while an inevitable Peter Crouch tag for yours truly also got a giggle - frustratingly for me as, having never struggled height-wise, obvious 'you're tall' wisecracks have rarely been in short *ahem* supply.
The excellent Dave then turned his attention to the rest of his audience. "I dunno know what yooou're laughin at," he said to another member in Scouse twang. "Yooou're Ngog." It is here that we get to the point. After deciding it would not be wise to say that, while we were on the subject of lookalikes, Dave's belly left him with more than a passing resemblance to Jan Molby - it would have only sparked an inevitably losing battle for me against Merseyside wit - I thought to myself, "bit harsh".
A comparison with Ngog was intended as an insult, not based upon appearance but upon footballing ability. However, while a pitiful season for Liverpool can already be described as a failure following the elimination from the Champions League group stages, the striker has offered an iota of optimism for Rafa Benitez as, despite an unflinching expression which would give Shane Warne and his five-card draw buddies a run for their money, the manager surely wrestles with the increasing weight of criticism.
Ngog's winner against Debrecen on Tuesday was his fifth goal of the season and he was the visitors' best player in the midweek fixture. Admittedly, with general comparisons being drawn between Liverpool's current season and the 2002/03 campaign, the likes of El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou would probably not look out of place in the current set-up. But the display in Budapest was not a one-off for the current Reds No.24.
The 20-year-old has visibly increased in confidence and comfort in surroundings, undoubtedly aided by the simple yet meaningful goal against Manchester United. As former darling of The Kop Gary McAllister has observed, he is no longer afraid to make mistakes. This is not arguing that the Frenchman is in the same class as Fernando Torres, far from it. He is, though, doing his best to fill the void being left by the injuries of the man who he previously roomed with during a pre-season and will probably continue to act as stand-in for in Sunday's Merseyside derby at Everton.
There is still a need for fine-tuning, but Ngog gave arguably his most complete performance in the victory over Debrecen. It is acknowledged that the Hungarians are far from the most skilful team in Europe and the goal will not be winning any monthly award. However, they are still the type of side the France Under 21 international would have failed to meet expectations against in earlier days. He led the line, always offered an option and provided a physical presence in a Liverpool side who are also a long way from being the most feared on the continent at present. Ngog is not yet the finished article, but then he is young and will still be maturing physically and mentally. There have been signs of development.
A dive against Birmingham correctly attracted unwelcome headlines and an excellently-taken goal against the Blues, which came prior to the penalty furore, has almost been forgotten because of the fallout. The simulation was a low point and it is hoped that the player will have taken it upon himself to respond to the negative publicity, while it is likely that there has also been a word in the ear from coaching staff which may explain a current focus in performances.
When he first arrived in England from Paris St Germain in the July of 2008, Ngog struck a gangly figure who appeared out of his depth and set for a place in the back of the memory of an Anfield faithful still slightly embarrassed from a host of dodgy imports from across The Channel during Gerard Houllier's days. Benitez, though, always maintained that he had spent £1.5million for the long term. This is getting carried away, but let's not forget what Thierry 'Où se trouve le barn door?' Henry was like in his first couple of seasons at Arsenal.
The purpose of this article was not to reveal how days are spent when not at the coalface. It was instead to say that, although he is definitely not there yet, Ngog is showing promise. This is also an opportunity to demonstrate to an aged colleague, who recently accused me of more turning up of the nose than Hyacinth Bucket in the direction of Darren Bent, that there is an appreciation for the new. But, focus. Before our editor reads this and decides to pack us off for a teambuilding break in the Lake District where a cargo-trousered man/woman would send us orienteering prior to an order to build a buoyant raft with only a length of rope and 10 ice lolly sticks as tools.
While the form and self-belief of Martin Skrtel and Emiliano Insua, to name a couple of many, has suffered severely during Liverpool's struggles, Ngog has been among the handful who have produced some form of consistency. On the whole his goals have come when matches are won or as good as over, versus Stoke and United, or against inferior opposition, Leeds and Debrecen. But he should not be judged on hitting the back of the net alone, it is an all-round game that has improved. Positional awareness, an understanding of specific tactics - a vital characteristic in Benitez's teams - a physical presence and - unlike others who have come and gone before - an apparent willingness to learn, are all on the up. The clinical goal against Leeds also demonstrated a striking instinct, which contrasted against Jermaine Beckford showing why no Premier League club has parted with cash for his services. Ngog also started a must-win game on Tuesday when Andriy Voronin was not even on the bench.
Ngog is far from reaching his peak and at the same time could easily still join a host of fellow post-Millennium, misfiring Reds strikers as just another name in the record books. He lacks serious experience and cannot yet be classed as a genuine alternative to Torres, hence speculation of a surprise January move for Real Madrid's former United star Ruud van Nistelrooy. But if he continues to progress and build in assurance, which could be aided by Europa League run-outs and repeated playing time alongside Steven Gerrard, then there have been glimpses of foundations.