Roy Hodgson launched a robust defence of Fernando Torres last night after the Spanish striker's ineffective display in Liverpool's goalless draw at Birmingham City drew stinging criticism. Torres was once again a peripheral figure as Liverpool were fortunate to escape with a point - José Reina produced two outstanding first-half saves, to deny Cameron Jerome and Craig Gardner.
The Spain international, who was so disappointing at the World Cup in the summer following a season with Liverpool that was blighted by groin and knee injuries, looked uninterested for long periods and failed to produce a meaningful effort on goal until the 64th minute. His performance was so woeful before half-time that it prompted the former Liverpool midfielder and now Sky pundit Jamie Redknapp to call the 26-year-old's contribution "diabolical" and "terrible" and to question whether the forward wanted to play in the match.
"Fans will suffer to a certain extent when you give the ball away but they won't suffer a lack of effort," Redknapp said at half-time. "Out there today for 45 minutes, he has been terrible. He hasn't got hold of the ball, he hasn't chased. He's got frustrated, he could have been booked. He's been diabolical.
"I'm his biggest fan and I love seeing him. Of course you have to give [Roger] Johnson and [Scott] Dann [the Birmingham central defenders] credit but he's shown no appetite for the game. He's looked frustrated, sloppy, lethargic. He cut a frustrated figure. I know people talk about his rustiness but he's looked fed up."
Having suggested immediately after the game that Torres had "caused havoc" at times and also "looked dangerous", Hodgson was a more circumspect with his choice of words in the post-match press conference. The Liverpool manager maintained, however, that Torres, who has scored only once for the club this season, was improving all the time and rejected Redknapp's argument.
"I don't share [Redknapp's] opinion," the Liverpool manager said. "I think he is working hard for the team. As we saw towards the end of the game, he's a constant thorn in the sides of defenders and I think you should give the defenders Dann and Johnson a lot of credit for making life difficult for him. We know that he lacks match training. He missed matches at the end of last year and he missed matches during the World Cup.
"But I'm not at all concerned about Fernando Torres. He will get better and better as the season goes on and I believe that, whether or not we will be discussing this as a good season or a bad season, we will be doing that in May; we won't be doing it at the beginning of September."
Hodgson has seen Liverpool collect five points from their first four matches, leaving them seven points adrift of the league leaders, Chelsea. He believes it is too early to be making any judgments on the season ahead.
"If you ask me the question, 'Can this team win the league?' I would say I don't know," he said. "I think it amusing people are discussing whether teams can win the league after four games. This is a tough place and [Birmingham] are unbeaten here for goodness knows how long. I've got to say my expectations were not that high anyway. I would have been disappointed to lose the game but certainly not that disappointed to draw it."
Liverpool have won only one of their last 11 matches away from home in the league and have scored eight goals in their last 14 away matches in the top flight. But Hodgson claimed he was "satisfied" to leave Birmingham with a draw.
The Birmingham manager, Alex McLeish,, not surprisingly, said: "We never took the chances and that's why we didn't win but I have got to be thrilled with the performance." McLeish's side are now unbeaten in 17 league matches at home.
"I have to say Pepe Reina was outstanding," he added. "Whether the saves were world class is for the experts to decide. But they certainly looked tremendous from where I was stood."