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Justice four the ninety six



FIRST came the solemn remembrance, then the celebration – it is difficult to imagine a more fitting way of commemorating the impending anniversary of British football’s worst ever sporting disaster.

As ever at this time of year, Hillsborough dominated everyone’s thoughts at Anfield on Saturday.

So much so that when Fernando Torres scored the game’s opening goal he raised his fingers to the heavens in tribute to the 96 Liverpool fans who lost their lives following the tragic events of April 15, 1989.

Banners demanding the justice which has always been denied to the victims and their families were draped across the Kop and the minute’s silence which preceded the game was as impeccably observed as it is possible to imagine.

Blackburn’s Stephen Warnock – a former Liverpool player and lifelong Red – embodied the enduring class and dignity of one of the Premier League’s most traditional and respected clubs by laying a floral tribute in front of the Kop before kick-off.

Everywhere you looked around the ground there were poignant reminders of the tragedy which should never have been allowed to happen and the ongoing thirst for justice to belatedly be delivered.

But perhaps the greatest tribute of all came on the pitch where Liverpool’s players delivered the kind of performance for which this truly special football club is so revered and which encourages so many thousands of people to follow them wherever they play.

It is never easy to switch thoughts from commemoration to sporting combat in the blink of an eye but this is exactly what Liverpool were tasked with on Saturday.

Visible emotion one minute, perpetual motion the next.

The fact Liverpool managed to do exactly that is testament not only to their talent but also to their professionalism and desire, two qualities which are almost always conspicuous in teams put together by Rafa Benitez.

On the day, they scored four times without reply but the margin of victory could have been even greater such were the imperious standards they set against a side with so many limitations it was hard to see how they could possibly muster even the slightest threat.

From the moment Torres came up with a passable impression of Marco van Basten by producing a swivel, turn and volley of such sumptuous quality it left jaws dropping in admiration there was only ever going to be one winner.

Unlike last Wednesday night when an early Torres strike only succeeded in riling Liverpool’s opposition into a stirring comeback, this fourth minute finish merely hinted at more to follow and so it proved as Blackburn showed they are a long, long way from being in Chelsea’s class.

Such was Liverpool’s overwhelming dominance Benitez even afforded himself a rare smile following Torres’ second of the afternoon.

It wasn’t a celebratory smile though, it was more an ironic one as the much criticised Reds boss noted that his fellow countryman’s headed goal from a set piece had come against a side which chooses to man mark at set pieces.

Blackburn boss Sam Allardyce, who seems to revel in the role of pantomime villain, took all the boos and hisses the Main Stand could muster on his not insignificant chin but he could do nothing to stem the red tide which was engulfing his players.

His only answer was to reinvent Samba football with gigantic centre-half Christopher Samba thrust into attack and asked to turn a succession of sow’s ears into silk purses.

It may be Easter but this was one miracle which was never going to happen.

The only problems Liverpool had were the ones they caused themselves as the lack of any discernible challenge caused boredom to set in at one stage and for a time the second half resembled a training game in which the aim was not to score.

But when Daniel Agger came up with his own goal of the month contender – a marvellously swerving strike from all of 30 yards – the quality of both himself and his team became achingly apparent once again.

All that was left was for David Ngog to nod in a late fourth to ensure the final scoreline offered a more accurate representation of the yawning gulf in class between the two sides.

It should be noted that Liverpool’s first and fourth goals were both created by Jamie Carragher whose delivery into the box on both occasions was first class.

Had Rio Ferdinand shown such creativity the national media would still be in a lather today but for some reason Carragher’s quality on the ball is all too easily overlooked.

If this was the biggest league game of his career so far as he suggested beforehand then the skipper for the day marked it in the best possible fashion with a display of leadership and no little class which set the tone for his team- mates to follow.

None more so than Javier Mascherano whose energy would seemingly be enough to light Anfield up on a dark night. If chasing and carrying was ever deemed an art form then the diminutive Argentinean would be football’s Picasso, such is his mastery of the holding midfield role.

The standing ovation he earned for winning a header on the halfway line, chasing it down for fully 40 yards and launching into an unsuccessful tackle before getting up off his backside to win back possession was as richly earned as any on a day when so many Liverpool players were providing moments of genuine note.

Manchester United’s win at Sunderland meant Liverpool’s stay at the Premier League summit was again only a brief one, much to the disappointment of everyone at Anfield who were hoping their team’s recent form would receive a more tangible reward.

In the past two weekends, it has been apparent that while Liverpool have form on their side, their great rivals from the other end of the M62 are more reliant on fortune.

It remains to be seen which of these qualities will prove the more enduring but all Liverpool can do is keep on winning their own games and hope the incessant pressure they are putting on United will eventually tell.

On Wednesday night, the Anfield DJ played ‘We Can Work It Out’ after Liverpool suffered at the hands of Chelsea. On Saturday his final choice of record was Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’.

One can only hope that come the final game of the season the Kop’s last dance is to a Queen classic which has not been heard around these parts for far too long.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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