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Classy Jordan Henderson keeps Liverpool heads high

Friday, 7 December 2012 - 12:29pm IST | Place: Udine | Agency: The Daily Telegraph

As is the norm for this team, it proved more of grind than it should have been, but nevertheless it represented the club's most satisfying evening since Brendan Rodgers took charge.

There are many Liverpool supporters who insist there is a class player hidden within Jordan Henderson. He's been concealed as notoriously as Lord Lucan for most of his Anfield career, but he made a well-timed appearance against Udinese on Thursday night.

Henderson's winner in Italy secured Liverpool's Europa League progress as group winners. As is the norm for this team, it proved more of grind than it should have been, but nevertheless it represented the club's most satisfying evening since Brendan Rodgers took charge.

No scriptwriting course is required to structure this familiar plot. Liverpool monopolised the ball, created numerous chances — many comfortably qualifying in the category 'sitter' - and came upon a goalkeeper who, when he actually played for Liverpool, was hopeless, but against them was temporarily inspired.

A 1-0 win was a meagre return given the opportunities created, but Liverpool still departed Italy with relief. Such were the fine margins in their group, only the last kick of the game - when substitute Antonio Di Natale volleyed over - confirmed the difference between winning the group and going out.

The job was done, and although cursory glances are aimed at Europe's ugly sibling of a competition, there was no mistaking what it meant to the Liverpool manager. "You saw how tight it was. I'm delighted for players we've finished top of the group. And it's good for our momentum to qualify," said Rodgers.

"We knew coming here we had to win. We were in a difficult group with a team with Champions League experience and one of the richest clubs in the world. The mentality of the team was strong and we won and that's good for our future.

"We could have been more comfortable but the fact it wasn't was mostly down to great goalkeeping." This felt like a pivotal game for the Northern Irishman, who was correctly dismissive of any suggestion an exit would have been a blessing in disguise.

The notion any current Liverpool manager can pick and choose which competitions are worth winning is long gone. Those clubs harbouring title ambitions for an intensive fight for the four can afford to see the Europa League as an unwanted distraction, but Liverpool can't presume they're back in such an elite category yet.

For a side eleventh in the league, all that would have remained had they bowed out was the chance to focus on qualifying for next year's Europa League. It may reach a stage in the New Year where the Premier League interferes with ambitions to win this competition.

Rodgers has always taken this tournament seriously, but there was an extra intent in his line-up. Basically, Luis Suarez was playing. That's all anyone needed to know about the elevated ambition. Plenty went in their favour, especially when Giovanni Pasquale was sent off in the 80th minute for a second yellow card.

The locals' lack of enthusiasm also assisted. It was a sparse, passive audience. It's tempting to say only one man and his dog was watching, but even the pooch had second thoughts as the teams emerged and fled before kick-off.

Udinese lacked incentive. Already out, their coach Francesco Guidolin kept the scourge of Liverpool in the first meeting between the clubs, Di Natale, on the bench until the 87th minute. He offered an opportunity to some of his reserves. They included a former Liverpool goalkeeper, Daniele Padelli, whose sole, unimpressive appearance on the last day of 2007 season was memorable because many worried he'd won a 'play in goal at Anfield' competition.

Typically, he made some outstanding saves last night, but wasn't so impressive when Liverpool made the decisive breakthrough on 24 minutes. Stewart Downing's corner was flicked on by Suarez, Suso nudged towards Henderson, and his by no means venomous strike went through Padelli's legs.

"Jordan's industry was great," said Rodgers.

"He is great lad and he worked hard he has come in over the last months and made a good contribution in the last month. He has that quality in him to get into the box, so I'm delighted his hard work is paying off." Although Udinese lacked conviction, they still had enough moments of danger to remind Liverpool how tentative the lead was.

Mathias Ranegia headed wide early on, and Pepe Reina had to be alert after a clever chip from Roberto Pereyra. On a pitch with more bobbles than a parade of knitted hats, Diego Fabrini also embarked on a shoot on sight policy. But Liverpool should have been strolling before anxiety set-in.

Padelli denied Suarez twice, and prevented Henderson claiming his second from point black range. Suso also squandered an easy chance, showing less poise in his right foot than he appears to have in his left.

It was not so much a march on Europe by Liverpool by full-time, more of gentle trot. But it still represents the most significant step of Rodgers's fledgling reign.

Udinese (4-2-3-1): Padelli; Pasquale, Danilo, Heurtaux, Faraoni; Pinzi Badu; Armero, Fabrini, Pereyra; Ranegia Subs: Benatia for Pinzi (45); Reinthaller for Benatia (65) Di Natale for Ranegie (87)

Substitutes not used: Brkic, Marsura, Berra, Frison Liverpool (4-3-3): Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Enrique; Henderson, Sahin, Allen; Suso, Downing, Suarez Subs: Sterling for Suso (71)

Substitutes not used: Jones, Cole, Assaidi, Coates, Shelvey, Wisdom Referee: Duarte Gomes Booked: Fabrini, Suso, Pasquale, Allen, Carragher Red card: Pasquale (80)

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