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Liverpool Daily Post report

DISCORD off the pitch at Anfield continues to be accompanied by harmony on it.

It was a more familiar, less troubled Rafael Benitez that greeted the media after Saturday’s victory than the figure which has raged against authority and adversaries in recent weeks.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps.

After all, his relentless Liverpool side had just routed Derby County 6-0 to go top of the Premier League for the first time in the Spaniard’s reign, with three of his new signings finding the back of the net in the impressive win.

Such small matters, of course, would cheer characters far more cantankerous than the usually affable Benitez.

While the manager’s mood will not have been lightened by the timing of his assistant Pako Ayesteran’s surprising decision to quit the club, this slick performance provided the perfect tonic.

A series of running disagreements between the pair has brought an end to a union which has spanned some 11 years, just as the project they set in motion in 2004 – to bring a close to Liverpool’s long wait for the title – has begun to gather pace.

A welcomed return of Benitez’s post-match bonhomie then, as the Anfield outfit revisited a position they have not occupied since 2002, when El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao combined for the latter to fire Liverpool to the summit of the league with a 1-0 victory over Leeds United.

It proved to be something of a false dawn for Gerrard Houllier’s regime and his expensive summer signings, as the Frenchman oversaw a disappointing fifth-placed finish that term.

Four of the six strikes on Saturday were collected by Benitez’s new arrivals. But should goalscorers Ryan Babel, Andriy Voronin and Fernando Torres call time on their Anfield careers tomorrow, they will have already shown more promise in a month than Houllier’s Senegalese misfits did in their entire stay.

Torres in particular caught the eye, the Spain striker continuing his seamless introduction into English football with a powerful display which brought him a second-half double.

More than any of the summer captures, the 22-year-old has transformed Benitez’s men as an attacking force, adding pace, strength and guile to the Spaniard’s forward line.

Torres’s appetite for graft has also helped the marksman to settle quickly to life in the Premier League. On one of the few occasions a Liverpool move broke down at his feet, the youngster harried and chased Derby’s players until he won back possession for his side.

This was also Babel’s most impressive showing to date, the Dutch forward adding Liverpool’s second on the stroke of half-time after Xabi Alonso, who also collected a brace, had opened the scoring with a floated free-kick on 26 minutes.

Babel’s international coach, Marco van Basten, has hailed the 20-year-old as the next Thierry Henry.

And, just as the France front-runner struggled with life on the wing at Juventus before excelling at Arsenal as a striker, Liverpool are unlikely to see the best of Babel until he is afforded greater opportunities in his favoured central role.

As his delightful goal proved, Babel, who began on the left, is clearly blessed with an abundance of talent.

Yet, he does not always look particularly comfortable in wide positions, performing the majority of his work from an infield position.

It would not be overstating the point to say that he bears the look of a striker playing on the wing. It was only after switching flanks with this game’s outstanding performer, Jermaine Pennant, in the first half that his influence grew.

Pennant was exceptional, all pace and purpose along both wings, giving further credibility to the flier’s England prospects which at the turn of the year had seemed fanciful.

Being the most in-form Englishman in your position is still no guarantee of selection, however, with a manager as incompetent as Steve McClaren at the helm. As the injured Jamie Carragher, who sat alongside fellow crock Steven Gerrard in the directors’ box, could testify.

More than one wag leaving Anfield on Saturday suggested that after such a display the captain and vice captain would struggle to get back in the first team.

It is testament to Pennant’s recent showings that when Gerrard does return to fitness, the 27-year-old will be competing only for a role in the centre, where Javier Mascherano and Alonso both excelled against the Rams.

Alonso began the scoring on 26 minutes, after Torres had earlier tested Steven Bywater with a towering header from Pennant’s centre, the keeper’s save greeted with chants of “England’s number one” from the visiting supporters in the Anfield Road end.

If, as recent evidence suggests, a propensity for blunders is a pre-requisite for Three Lions shot-stoppers, then Bywater certainly has the credentials, the Derby keeper flapping at Alonso’s 35-yards set-piece which drifted in at the far post unchallenged. A comparatively close-range strike by the Spaniard’s usual standards.

Pennant, who won the free-kick for the opener, had by now taken control of the game on the left, ghosting past Derby full-back Tyrone Mears at will.

The former Birmingham and Arsenal man twice crafted openings for Dirk Kuyt with pin-point centres, but the Dutchman was off target on both occasions.

Unsurprisingly, Pennant, who was withdrawn on 61-minutes with a slight groin strain, was involved in Liverpool’s second and the pick of the six, unleashing Alvaro Arbeloa into the penalty box with a cutting throughball. The one-time Deportivo defender, a revelation at left-back this term, cut the ball back for the lurking Babel, who took lumbering centre-backs Andy Todd and Claude Davis out of the equation with a neat shift of the ball from his left foot to his right before firing home with aplomb.

The goal did much for Babel’s self belief, the £11m signing coming alive after the break.

When Liverpool’s inevitable third arrived on 55 minutes, however, it was from the boot of another newcomer, Torres.

Not since Michael Owen departed for Real Madrid in 2004 have the Anfield outfit possessed a striker who could create chances for himself with such ease.

Mascherano’s snapping tackle on the dawdling Robert Malcolm gave the £18m man possession on the edge of the box, Torres drifting across the face of goal before picking his spot with his left foot.

The former Atletico Madrid captain was then guilty of missing a far simpler chance, however, when Babel’s stinging shot ricocheted into his path.

Alonso added a fourth on 69 minutes after James McEveley’s fierce challenge on substitute Yossi Benayoun gave the midfielder the opportunity to stroke home from inside the area.

The tireless Kuyt, however, continued to be frustrated by Bywater, although Andriy Voronin, on from the bench, was alert to take advantage of the keeper’s save from the Dutch striker’s 76th-minute effort, prodding home from close range.

Voronin then had a hand in Torres’s second and Liverpool’s sixth when the Spaniard seized on his throughball, which the Derby defence failed to deal with, to complete the scoring two minutes later.

There was to be no first Premier League strike of the season for Kuyt, however, Bywater again thwarting the former Feyenoord man after Benayoun had given him a sight of goal with two minutes remaining.

It was, admitted Benitez afterwards, the only aspect which took the shine off this impressive display for the manager.

LIVERPOOL: Reina, Finnan, Hyypia, Agger, Arbeloa, Pennant (Benayoun 61), Mascherano (Sissoko 77), Alonso, Babel (Voronin 73), Torres, Kuyt. Subs: Itandje, Riise.

DERBY: Bywater, Griffin (Moore 80), Malcolm (Teale 59), Davis, Camara (McEveley 63), Todd, Fagan, Oakley, Mears, Pearson, Howard. Subs: Price, Earnshaw.
BOOKING: Griffin.

REFEREE: Alan Wiley (Staffordshire).

ATT: 44,076

Copyright - Liverpool Daily Post

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