Benayoun helps Liverpool storm Spanish citadel

Real Madrid may crave artistry in the Champions League but it is Rafael Benítez who revels in achievement. There is no more dangerous place to find the Liverpool manager and his team than pressed into a corner and, three days after deflation against the richest club in the world, they landed a devastating blow on the most successful. The prodigal son had returned with a vengence.

Eight minutes remained of a contest that will live only in the memory of the travelling thousands at the Bernabeu Stadium when Yossi Benayoun, who started as a result of Steven Gerrard's absence, headed Fabio Aurelio's whipped free-kick beyond Iker Casillas. Benitez had his first victory over his boyhood club as manager, Liverpool another notable scalp, and the quarter-finals beckon at Anfield on 10 March. Textbook Liverpool.

The tactics on display will not promote Benitez's credentials in the eyes of a club that once sacked Fabio Capello for not winning the league in the style Real Madrid are accustomed to. But a brand that has not reached the last eight of the Champions League since 2004, and faces an extended wait given the pitiful lack of ingenuity or variety on display last night, has cause to rue the remarkable European record of the Madrileno who got away. Real's supposed guile was inconsequential against Liverpool's commitment and organisation. They were simply another of Benitez's classic victims, the one he will savour most, and again he has plotted a Champions League course through a backdrop of domestic strife and internal political wrangling.

Another glorious European night for Liverpool had commenced amid rumours of Benitez's impending departure from Anfield, the culmination of Merseyside whispers ever since Sunday's damaging draw against Manchester City and given ridiculous credence by Sky Sports News following a bookmakers' decision to suspend betting on the Spaniard leaving before the weekend. A few things to bear in mind; Benitez would walk away from roughly £4m should he quit his existing contract now and Tom Hicks remains determined to secure his manager on a new deal despite the frustrations of trying to obtain that signature. Far from ideal preparation for the Liverpool manager, but a day of free publicity for William Hill's.

A genuine concern in the tie for Liverpool was the continued absence of Steven Gerrard with a hamstring tear. An indication of how remote were the captain's prospects of starting against Real came when Gerrard did not take part in the pre-match warm-up, despite being named on the substitutes' bench. He had been joined by an injured Fernando Torres by the time Benayoun found himself unmarked on the Real six-yard line and one header away from sudden appreciation at Liverpool. As with Real's confidence following nine successive victories under Juande Ramos, the visitors found a way to cope without their leading lights.

Torres limped away from an arduous night against his former rivals with his right foot in a protective boot and will miss Saturday's trip to Middlesbrough with an ankle injury. "He twisted his ankle in the first minute and the longer it went on the more I could see he was struggling," said Benitez, who eventually replaced the former Atletico Madrid idol with 28 minutes to play.

With the Spaniard restricted and Gerrard benched until the 88th minute Liverpool needed a resolute defensive display as the basis for the supreme optimism that eventually followed. Real served intent of an awkward evening with a commanding start, but Arjen Robben's piercing pass to Raul, swept into the arms of Jose Reina, proved a false dawn in terms of both their creativity and opportunities.

Though Marcelo and Robben shot harmlessly wide, Sergio Ramos had a headed goal correctly disallowed for offside and Gonzalo Higuain worked tirelessly in attack, it was Liverpool who created the clearer chances. Casillas saved well to deny Torres his first goal at the Bernabeu but otherwise the goalkeeper's performance, along with that of Fabio Cannavaro and Gabriel Heinze, who combined to miss a long clearance for the Spaniard's chance, augurs well for Liverpool in the second leg.

The ball was a luxury item for Liverpool at times, while the commitment to defending in numbers bore close resemblance to the tactics that so enrage Benitez whenever deployed against him at Anfield. Still, they can succeed against expressive teams and with frustration mounting among the home ranks Liverpool began to find space to exploited their game-plan to the full. Robben stung Reina's palms from 25 yards but Liverpool ultimately resembled Mohammad Ali asking "Is that all you got George?" during the Rumble in the Jungle. It was Real who were left smarting.

Iker Casillas, Kepler Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Fabio Cannavaro, Gabriel Heinze, Junior Marcelo (Jose Maria Guti, 46), Lassana Diarra, L, Fernando Ruben Gago, Arjen Robben, Gonzalez Raul, Gonzalo Higuain

Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Fabio Aurelio, Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel, Alvaro Arbeloa, Javier Mascherano, Yossi Benayoun, Xabi Alonso, Albert Riera (Steven Gerrard, 88), Dirk Kuyt (Lucas Leiva, 90), Fernando Torres (Ryan Babel, 62)

Referee Rosetti, R
Venue Santiago Bernabeu
Attendance 85,000

Copyright - The Guardian

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