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Liverpool Echo report

APART from his well known and understandable aversion to the penalty spot, there can be few things in football which strike as much fear into the heart of Middlesbrough boss Gareth Southgate as the sight of Fernando Torres bearing down on goal.

The only comfort for Southgate is that he doesn't have to try to mark him because there is something about the sight of a Middlesbrough shirt which brings out the very best in Torres.

Four goals scored in just two games against the Teessiders tells its own story but the sub-plot to the tale is that without their new iconic front man Liverpool may not have taken a single point from either of these matches.

At the Riverside last month, a Torres strike from fully 30 yards gave the Reds a point in a game which appeared to be slipping away from them, and at Anfield on Saturday he again came up with the goods with a superb hat-trick which delivered all three.

In a sub-standard game where defensive mistakes were at the root of four out of the five goals scored, Torres was head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch.

While the majority of Liverpool's players were in after the Lord Mayor's show mode, the Spanish striker took the game by the scruff of the neck with all the decisiveness you would expect of a player who cost a club record £20m.

It would be ridiculous to claim that anyone or anything which costs such a huge amount of money could be a bargain, but with 21 goals to his name in his debut season in English football Torres is undoubtedly money well spent and he is already one of the most feared forwards in the Premier League.

On Saturday it was just as well that Liverpool can count on a forward of Torres' class because without Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, their defence verged on the shambolic at times.

Middlesbrough's opening goal illustrated this when a basic set piece routine resulted in Tuncay nodding in past the hopelessly exposed Pepe Reina as Liverpool's players appealed for off side, oblivious to the fact that Torres and Sami Hyypia had dropped too deep and were playing the Turk on.

That kind of disorganisation set the tone for the rest of the game and only the combination of Tuncay's refusal to use his head and eagle eyed ref Lee Mason stopped Liverpool from conceding a second first half goal in a fitful and disjointed display.

Thankfully, errors were far from consigned to the Reds’ ranks and Boro's Julio Arca would have been guilty of the biggest misjudgment of the day had it not been for Tom Hicks Junior misguidedly venturing into an Anfield pub after the game.

Arca's attempted headed backpass turned the game Liverpool's way at a time when they were looking shaky, as he succeeded only in sending Torres through on goal and the forces of nature did the rest.

A minute later and Torres showed that he doesn't need any help from opposition players – or anyone else, for that matter – when he smashed home a wonderful effort from the edge of the box.

Liverpool had not played well, far from it, but Torres had turned the game inexorably in their favour on his own. If El Nino stands as proof that you really do get what you pay for in football then a few more £20m cheques being written at Anfield certainly wouldn't go amiss.

Torres' hat-trick goal came on the hour mark when he took advantage of a terrible mix up between Mark Schwarzer and David Wheater, who failed to deal with Dirk Kuyt's long punt forward, to hook home into an empty Kop net.

Again, that strike came at a time when Liverpool were struggling to impose themselves on the game as much as they would have liked and it came about simply because Middlesbrough were so scared of Torres' mere presence anywhere near their goal.

Stewart Downing reduced the arrears late on with another goal which exposed Liverpool's frailties at the back on the day but Middlesbrough's hopes of grabbing an unlikely point were extinguished when Jeremie Aliadiere was sent off for aiming a slap at the ever combative Mascherano.

The young Frenchman should be relieved that Mascherano managed to keep his discipline because if he fights anything like he tackles, Aliadiere would have needed more bodyguards than protected Hicks the younger at the Sandon to keep him safe from harm.

For the first time in several weeks Liverpool had played the same number of games as their rivals for that crucial fourth spot and the Premier League table at ten to five on Saturday showed that they have out-performed Everton, Man City and Aston Villa so far this season.

But they are going to have to play a lot better than they did against Middlesbrough if they are to secure that spot when it matters most, at the end of the season.

Far sterner tests than this one lie ahead and, as undeniably brilliant as Torres undoubtedly is, they will also need more than a single stellar performer if they are to take the fairly dubious title of best of the rest.

Not that one should be, but if an incentive is needed Liverpool could do a lot worse than look at the standard of this year's UEFA Cup because if they found it hard getting themselves up for Middlesbrough after playing Inter Milan, how will they cope with a much devalued competition which boasts fewer top clubs than the top flight of English football?

Fortunately, Rafa Benitez and his players still have their destiny in their own hands despite a run of form which has seen them win just two of their last nine league games.

They may not have repeated their Champions League heroics on Saturday but at least they got the result they needed so badly and for that alone everyone at Anfield should be grateful for Fernando Torres.

For poor Gareth Southgate, the only thing he has to be thankful for is that his team will not have to face Torres again this season.

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