There is no need for Fernando Torres to complain about Rafael Benítez's rotation policy when he produces finishing that merits a far greater stage than the Carling Cup. Having been controversially left out of the starting line-up for Liverpool's previous two matches in the league, the Spaniard marked his return last night with a wonderful second-half hat-trick which suggests actions may well speak louder than words when it comes to forcing Benítez's hand.
The Liverpool manager claimed afterward that Torres was not guaranteed to start at Wigan on Saturday but it is inconceivable that the club's record signing will begin a third league match in succession from the substitutes' bench. His response was so emphatic here that he must be regarded as Benítez's first-choice striker in a forward line that has stuttered of late. The three goals all illustrated different qualities to smooth Liverpool's passage into the last 16.
It was not only the goals, though, that Benítez and the travelling fans could admire. Up against the intimidating and physical presence of André Bikey, Torres coped admirably. The Reading defender, who at times was guilty of stretching the laws of the game, was eventually booked for a foul on Torres in the second half but by then the former Atlético Madrid striker had already made his mark. He would leave another one when he departed with the match ball under his arm.
There had been no hint that Torres would have such an explosive impact on this tie before the interval but the touchpaper was lit five minutes after the restart. Timing his run perfectly to avoid the Reading offside trap, he latched on to Sebastián Leto's measured through-ball and held off the challenge of Michael Duberry before looking up and steering a confident, low shot from 12 yards past Adam Federici and into the bottom corner.
Torres's strike put Liverpool back in front after an open first half in which they had taken the lead through Yossi Benayoun's first goal for the club, a thrashed shot high into the top corner after the hapless Bikey had been nutmegged, only for Bobby Convey to drill a low volley past Charles Itandje two minutes later. With four Reading players occupying offside positions and arguably in Itandje's line of vision, Benítez's frustration was understandable.
Steve Coppell also had a right to feel disappointed at that point. Reading had played with pace and purpose in the opening 45 minutes and ought to have had more to show for their high-tempo approach than Convey's goal. Leroy Lita, who later saw a spectacular overhead kick touched over the bar by Itandje, was the most culpable, heading straight at the Liverpool keeper from John Halls' inviting cross.
Torres would not be so profligate although before the 23-year-old struck his second there was time for Reading once again to demonstrate their belligerence. Nicky Shorey's inswinging corner caused consternation in the Liverpool penalty area, with Itandje, not for the first time, appearing vulnerable under the high ball. Halls, lurking 12 yards from goal, pounced and although his first shot was blocked by a clutch of defenders he prodded the rebound over the line.
That might have been the cue for a frantic finale but Torres evidently had other ideas. When the substitute John Arne Riise escaped on the left flank, teasing Emerse Fae before cutting the ball back, the Spaniard found space in the penalty area. There was still much to do but, taking the ball first time, Torres opened his body to create the angle to punch an exquisite right-foot shot high into the top corner beyond Federici's despairing dive.
There was still more to come, Torres adding the coup de grace with four minutes remaining. Released by the substitute Steven Gerrard's astute pass, he burst clear of the trailing Reading rearguard as Federici advanced from his goalline. The Australian sought to stand his ground but Torres, expertly dropping his shoulder, soon altered the goalkeeper's thinking, sashaying around him before tapping the ball into the empty net for his sixth goal in nine appearances.
23' 0-1 Benayoun
28' Convey 1-1
50' 1-2 Torres
64' Halls 2-2
72' 2-3 Torres
86' 2-4 Torres
Adam Federici, Andre Bikey, Ulises De la Cruz, Michael Duberry, John Halls (Stephen Hunt), Nicky Shorey, Bobby Convey (Dave Kitson), Emerse Fae, James Harper, Leroy Lita, Shane Long (James Henry)
Charles Itandje, Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Aurelio (John Arne Riise), Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan, Yossi Benayoun, Lucas Leiva (Jack Hobbs), Sebastian Leto, Mohamed Sissoko, Peter Crouch (Steven Gerrard), Fernando Torres
Referee: Atkinson, M
Venue: Madejski Stadium
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