By PHIL THOMAS
MARTIN SKRTEL is relishing the chance of silencing the deadliest gun in the Premier League — two months after getting the runaround from part-timers.
The Slovakian centre-back arrived at Liverpool as the club’s costliest defender and heralded as the no- nonsense stopper who would add a touch of steel to the Anfield rearguard.
Yet after Havant and Waterlooville’s rag-tag outfit gave him such a torrid debut, even the most one-eyed fan would have questioned his ability to tackle a good meal, let alone all England’s top clubs could offer.
Baptism of fire for Skrtel
In hindsight, Skrtel reckons that baptism of fire was just what he needed to give him an alarm call to the demands ahead.
The £6million January signing from Zenit St Petersburg has made such a recovery that he is now becoming a regular in the side. But he faces his toughest test against Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo on Sunday.
Liverpool travel to Old Trafford trailing the leaders by 11 points and still seeking their first league goal against United in four years of Rafa Benitez’s stewardship.
Skrtel, 23, is licking his lips at the prospect — especially now the memories of his debut disaster are fading fast. He admitted: “In some respects, I think that game helped me. When I look back, it was a non-league team and I could analyse my mistakes and work on them.
“I have tried not to make the same ones again. I have learnt from that experience and taken bits from that game.
“I am my biggest critic. We conceded two goals to a non-league team — one because of my mistake. So I was not happy with myself.
“I did worry at first what the fans would think of me.
“But at the end of the day, I knew I’d get another opportunity to prove I’m a better player than that first full game.”
Benitez never had any doubts about Skrtel’s ability to adapt and has kept faith with him throughout.
Two weeks after that Havant horror show, the raw-boned Slovak justified his manager’s faith with an awesome display in a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge.
It earned comparisons with United’s Serbian cruncher Nemanja Vidic — another man who relishes the more physical side to the English game.
Skrtel added: “Yes, I know that I am a physical player and I know the game in England is very physical — so I think it suits me in that respect.
“At the beginning, immediately after the transfer, I found things hard but now I feel I have settled in. I don’t really have problems now.
“As far as comparisons are concerned, you would have to ask the manager or the specialists. I cannot say who I am like myself.
“I wouldn’t really wish to compare myself with anyone because I want to be a unique player. I want to be known for being me.”
As a youngster, Skrtel was also a hugely promising ice hockey player and had to decide which sport to pursue as a professional.
In the end it was no contest as he followed in the footsteps of his father, Roman, in joining FC Prievidza.
From there he moved to AS Trencin before moving to Russia with Zenit St Petersburg. His dad still plays a key role in his decisions even from 10,000 miles away.
Skrtel added: “Without a doubt my biggest influences are my parents.
“My father was a footballer but had to end his career early when I was very little because of a knee injury.
“That makes you realise your career is precious. He was a huge influence and the first person to take me to a football pitch.
“He was my first coach although he never forced me to do anything. I chose football because I enjoyed it the most.”
Skrtel had such an impact in his 115 games and five goals for Zenit that he helped them end a 23-year wait for the title last season.
Now he is convinced he can prove a similar good luck charm to Liverpool, whose last league triumph came 18 years ago.
He added: “We have the players to win the league here, definitely.”
Yet for the moment he is simply concerned with shackling 33-goal Ronaldo and Co in a game many fans of both clubs view as bigger than their local derbies.
Skrtel admitted: “We know Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez are players of immense quality. But we are working really hard to prove we are the better players — we will see.
“I haven’t played in a derby game yet but I know that United and Everton are Liverpool’s biggest rivals.”
And if he manages to help pull off a famous Old Trafford victory, Skrtel can expect an end to the quiet life as one of the less recognisable Liverpool faces on the street.
As a certain fading Newcastle manager might say, he would just love it. Skrtel added: “I am getting noticed more and more when I am out in Liverpool, although this is at Manchester which is better.
“I don’t get recognised there but maybe after Sunday I will. I hope so.”
In fact it is true Skrtel first performance in the Havant game shocked me as lousy and easily outrunned. Then he slowly emerging at the back as a solid and most importantly, reliable one.... to replace Hyppia or Finnan. The old soldiers are reaching the twilight of their career where alse Skrtel is hardly 25 years old. A long way to go. I hope he can stop the bastards from Man. U tomoro.