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If it took Steven Gerrard until the 76th minute to embark on the late hat-trick that brought Liverpool FC a dramatic 3-1 comeback victory over UEFA Europa League rivals SSC Napoli, the Anfield captain had already started turning the tide from his introduction as a half-time substitute, according to team-mate Jay Spearing.
The young Liverpool midfielder said Gerrard's presence helped galvanise a team who were second-best to Napoli in the first half and trailed at the break to a goal by Argentine forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, the stand-out performer for the first 45 minutes.
"It is the presence he has got," Spearing said of Gerrard. "
He is probably the best midfielder in the world and he showed it again tonight, coming on for 45 minutes and getting three goals. It is the presence he brings and the boost it gives us and we showed it in the second half. We went out and gave it a go. His attitude to the game shows through and affects the rest of the lads."
Gerrard's rescue acts for Liverpool are such an integral feature of the club's recent history that he should really have taken the field accompanied by a flashing light and wailing siren. Left on the bench for the first 45 minutes with Fernando Torres omitted altogether – manager Roy Hodgson had Sunday's Premier League meeting with Chelsea FC in mind – Gerrard inspired his team-mates who missed chances to equalise through David Ngog, Jonjo Shelvey and Raúl Meireles even before the late denouement.
Comparing Liverpool's second-half recovery with a first half where they were outpassed by the visitors, the hard-working Spearing added: "We showed them too much respect. We were at home and didn't get among them enough and didn't put in enough challenges. In the second half we did that, we put our foot in and they seemed to panic. We started getting more balls forward and got three goals from it." Gerrard himself said: "Everyone played their part tonight. I'm sure I'll get the headlines but it certainly wasn't just about me. Every one of the lads in the second half was just fantastic."
According to Napoli coach Walter Mazzari, Gerrard's equaliser 14 minutes from time "changed the atmosphere in the stadium". The England midfield struck when ex-Liverpool player Andrea Dossena under-hit slightly his backpass to goalkeeper Morgan de Sanctis. Gerrard slid in and although De Sanctis got to the ball first, the midfielder's momentum turned it into the net. It was a goal that visiting captain Paolo Cannavaro spoke ruefully about afterwards. "We played a great game up to that moment of naivety that cost us the equaliser," said the defender.
Gerrard subsequently killed off Napoli with goals after 88 and 89 minutes, the first a penalty. Besides putting Liverpool three points clear at the top of Group K, his late heroics meant Napoli dropped to third. Cannavaro added: "It's a shame because it is a missed opportunity.
We got on top of Liverpool and could have achieved something special but evidently this game showed us that to take that step forward in quality, we can't afford the slightest drop in concentration. If we can build in the future on our performance in the first hour here at Anfield we'll be on the way to becoming a great team."
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