THE last time Fernando Torres visited Villa Park, he left the pitch clutching his hamstring to signal the start of an 18-month battle with persistent injury.
Last night, however, the Spaniard returned to the Midlands to help resuscitate Liverpool’s ailing Premier League campaign and silence the doubters who have questioned his fitness and commitment to the club.
Torres struck in the third minute of injury time to give Rafael Benitez’s side their first back-to-back league victories since September and provide a huge boost to their hopes of Champions League qualification.
It meant the striker had reached 50 league goals in his 72nd appearance quicker than any other player in Liverpool’s history. But of more immediate interest to Torres and his manager will be the positive impact this triumph should have heading into the New Year after a tumultuous first half to the season.
A late injury to Glen Johnson, who limped off in the closing moments after being fallen on by Gabriel Agbonlahor, couldn’t take the gloss off what could prove a pivotal victory.
Villa have emerged as one of Liverpool’s main rivals for a top-four place this season, their 3-1 win at Anfield setting the tone of the campaign for both clubs.
Subsequent victories over Chelsea and Manchester United had proven that earlier triumph was no fluke, but their 3-0 spanking at Arsenal suggested they had overachieved during the first half of the season.
Recent history pointed towards some rare away-day joy. Liverpool were unbeaten in their previous 11 league visits to Villa Park with their last defeat a 2-1 reverse in February 1998, downed by two goals from everyone’s favourite former Anfield player, Stan Collymore.
Indeed, Liverpool’s August loss was only the second in the last 22 meetings between the sides in all competitions, with the Anfield outfit having now taken more Premier League points off Villa than any other opposition.
The only change from the team that eventually saw off Wolves three days earlier saw the rested Dirk Kuyt return in place of Fabio Aurelio, who dropped to the bench after complaining of a tight calf.
It meant a second successive start for Alberto Aquilani, despite the Italian visibly tiring badly during the second half on Saturday.
Needs must, however, and with Javier Mascherano still unavailable, there was little choice but to throw Aquilani back into the hurly-burly of a Premier League midfield clash.
That said, the dreadful wintry conditions effectively slowed the pace of the game and allowed the £20m man more time in possession and greater scope to demonstrate his undoubted passing range.
It will take time for Aquilani to acclimatise and Liverpool probably won’t see the full value of their summer investment until next season, but the player couldn’t have been kept wrapped in cotton wool forever.
Lee Probert was elevated to the position of match referee in place of the absent Peter Walton before kick-off, a decision Liverpool were left to rue when the official denied them a clear opportunity to take a half-time lead.
There seemed little doubt a penalty should be awarded when Richard Dunne clattered into a marauding Dirk Kuyt inside the area on 37 minutes, but Probert thought otherwise.
It would have given Liverpool the chance of taking a lead their performance would have merited during a first half in which the battle was as much against the elements as the opponents.
The nearest they came was in the 17th minute with their most penetrating passing movement of the opening period. A fine crossfield pass from Emiliano Insua found Torres on the right and, from the Spaniard’s pass inside, Steven Gerrard – making his 350th league appearance for the club – hit a curling side-foot shot first time from 25 yards that a stretching Brad Friedel did brilliantly to palm over.
From the resultant corner, Yossi Benayoun struck weakly at the Aston Villa goalkeeper, one of many set-pieces from which Liverpool failed to take full advantage.
One of the better-worked free-kicks saw a Gerrard shot deflected wide off John Carew, but too often corners were overhit or too easily cleared by the Villa defence.
Liverpool did occasionally threaten in open play, particularly down the right where Kuyt and Glen Johnson enjoyed plenty of encouragement.
And it was from a clipped Johnson cross that Torres solicited an admittedly comfortable save from Friedel.
Villa were not without their own danger and, spearheaded by the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor and the power of Carew, caused moments of trouble for the visitors, most notably on the half-hour when an unmarked Stewart Downing met James Milner’s deep corner flush on the volley only for Pepe Reina to be in the right place to beat the ball clear.
The goalkeeper had earlier parried Dunne’s attempted header across goal and claimed a speculative long-range effort from Milner.
Liverpool, though, remained on top after the interval, and after Villa’s support grew amusingly agitated by Reina’s elongated change of boots, Aquilani curled a free-kick harmlessly over from range.
Now it was Villa who were content to sit back and hit on the break, the favoured method of approach from their curiously-lauded coach Martin O’Neill.
It almost paid dividends on 70 minutes when, after referee Probert waved play on despite Daniel Agger falling over Agbonlahor’s legs, the Villa man went on and drew a good save from Reina.
Carew glanced Milner’s corner narrowly wide before Villa ambitiously claimed a penalty when Insua headed the ball on to his own arm.
But Liverpool were the more ambitious team, and should have gone ahead when substitute Ryan Babel failed to connect properly to Insua’s cross with a free header.
And they earned their just rewards in injury time with a goal that makes calamitous viewing for Villa.
After Stephen Warnock gifted possession to Kuyt, the ball broke to Benayoun. The Israeli was tackled by Agbonlahor, but the challenge served only to play Torres in on goal who, demonstrating his clinical eye to find the back of the net, dispatched his shot beyond American stopper Friedel before wheeling away to the jubilant travelling support.
Benitez said: "We knew we had to reduce the gap. Sometimes we have had some really bad luck. Today we have scored a late goal and I’m really pleased for Fernando and the team.
"It was his 50th league goal and when he signed for us I knew we were getting a very good player with good quality and a good mentality.
"You saw that today. He has one chance and he can score. He is one of the best strikers in the world."
Benitez knows the importance of keeping Torres, who has been troubled by a groin problem, fit for the majority of the campaign, although he revealed an ankle injury has also given cause for concern.
He said: "Fernando has had some problems with his ankle more than his groin and he has been working very hard with the fitness coach and the physio.
"It depends on how he feels (in terms of how many games he can play) but today he was okay."
Benitez also repeated his "guarantee" that Liverpool FC would finish in the top four.
He added: "People keep asking me this but I will say again, the manager has to believe and I believe we will be in the top four at the end of the season."
Villa boss Martin O’Neill was deflated after his side’s second defeat in three days following the 3-0 reversal at Arsenal on Sunday.
And he felt the extra 24 hours Liverpool FC had to recover from their game against Wolves on Saturday may have been a factor.
He said: "It’s a blow, there’s no doubt about it, a real, real blow to us.
"We will just have to reflect on it. It was said to me that it’s been a poor Christmas and, of course, yes, in terms of results it has been, but we should have won.
"We played two games in 48 hours - this sounds very much like a bleat - but at this stage of the season those extra hours might have made a difference.
"Having said that, I thought we finished very strongly. There was a little period about 20 minutes into the second half where I thought we got a bit of control, came again very strongly.
"Their goalkeeper (Pepe Reina) has made a great save in each half, one from Stewart Downing and one from Gabby (Agbonlahor) later on. We have had two which have gone inches past the post.
"It’s hard to take but we will come again."
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Friedel; Young, Dunne, Cuellar, Warnock; Milner, Reo-Coker (Albrighton 72), Petrov, Downing (Sidwell 80)); Agbonlahor, Carew.
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson (Skrtel 89), Carragher, Agger, Insua; Lucas, Aquilani (Babel 77); Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun (Aurelio 90+3); Torres.
Bookings – Dunne (41), Lucas (43)