With the return engagement against Sporting Braga coming on fast and Liverpool needing to win by a pair to ensure advancement, the hopes are high for Andy Carroll's first start and that his presence might at least go some way towards making up for the absences of Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez. So, a £35M transfer and everybody counting on you to save Liverpool's European campaign--and likely their slim hopes for any football on the continent next season. No pressure, kid.
Certainly it can't be denied that the team looked much better after his introduction last Thursday, which offers a contrast to when he came along against United and his introduction appeared to signal to his teammates that the game was done and dusted and that they could switch to autopilot, though on the whole neither could be considered a truly dominating performance. Clearly he does have the ability to control the air, but even in his cameo against Braga there were signs that with European officials he may have somewhat more than his fair share of calls go against him no matter if he's fouled the defender or not--or even if the defender has clubbed him clear across the face. It would be easy to write it off as one bad official in this case, except that ex-Red and fellow High & Mighty shopper Peter Crouch's European campaign for Tottenham this season has been noteworthy largely for the number of calls that don't go his way, perhaps offering an ominous omen for Carroll's future in continental competition.
In any case, it's easy to imagine a fully fit and on form Carroll running into a unique set of obstacles even after he's finished working out the rust. He does clearly feel comfortable with the ball at his feet, however, and appears willing to drift into wide areas and run at defenders. He may not be likely to beat a defender with guile, but on occasions when that is brought up as something lacking in his game it would be wise to remember that the number nine he's replacing was hardly a technical magician, mainly relying on pace and the ability to accelerate, either using his speed and strength to muscle past backpedaling defenders or catching them flat-footed and beating them on the turn. Assuming Carroll doesn't become too beloved a target for the referees, it's not a stretch to think that both are skills that he already has in his locker, even if clearly not yet at the level Torres did in his prime. On this front at least, so as long as Liverpool doesn't treat him like a one-trick pony and Carragher's favourite target for aimless hoofs there's no reason to believe he can't be a great deal more than said novelty juggling equine.
With equine meaning forehead, I guess. And novelty juggling being the ability to knock down long balls. Or something. As long as over the long term Liverpool don't find themselves becoming too dependent on an overly agricultural style of football, the early returns at least suggest promise.
Also important on Thursday, of course, will be that he reduces the need for at least one of Cole, Poulsen, or Spearing to be on the pitch, and given the relative performances against Braga by Cole and against a much tougher opponent in Manchester United by Maxi Rodriguez, there's really no reason we should have to see any more than one of the bit part players. Andy Carroll may not have single-handedly torn Braga apart, and in truth he may never be the sort of striker to do that, but it was clear that Liverpool's game became more cohesive after he came on. It's hard to believe that if Liverpool advances it will be because Carroll puts them on his back and carries them, at the very least not on this Thursday, and so expecting him to do so would be misplaced and foolish. Still, there is already some reason to hope he'll be able to make the rest of the side look at least a little bit better, and over the length of an entire home match that just might even be enough for this weakened Liverpool side to get the job done.