Maximum points all that matter at Anfield

THREE points gained, 90 minutes for Fernando Torres and Sam Allardyce sent home in a huff; for Rafa Benitez it was, clearly, a case of mission accomplished.

When Blackburn Rovers come to town, the prospects of witnessing a classic game of football are as realistic as their manager – not someone who is familiar with the concept of self-effacement – winning a shrinking violet competition. It will never happen.

We have reached the stage of the season, though, where classics are games not required; some, inevitably, will throw their hands in the air and say Liverpool have a duty to start playing with a swagger but all that matters now is they keep their points tally ticking over.

So while Allardyce ranted and raved about how Blackburn deserved to win as “they created the most chances”, Benitez was able to afford himself a wry smile, as Liverpool kept themselves in Champions League contention with a crucial triumph.

The day also started with a smile. For once, the Sunday morning papers made for an amusing read, thanks primarily to the latest claptrap spouted by Allardyce; it would have been easy to take offence, had his claims not been so ridiculously wrong.

Having had one crack at Benitez in Saturday’s editions – suggesting he had copy the tactics he used at Bolton – Allardyce’s lack of gumption in declaring that Liverpool were to blame for nearly ruining El-Hadji Diouf’s career almost took the breath away.

Liverpool to blame? Of course they were. It was entirely Liverpool’s fault Diouf continually failed to report for training on time, that he brought shame on the club by spitting at an opposing fan and showed a wanton lack of professionalism, wasn’t it?

Benitez has often found his transfer record called into question but surely everyone would agree one of the best pieces of business he has done was to get £4m for a player who most Liverpool fans would have used their own petrol to get him away.

That Diouf was once the possessor of one of the club’s most sacred shirts will remain in the file titled ‘life’s great travesties’ and it says everything about this foul character that Cristiano Ronaldo would receive a warmer welcome from the Kop. Well, probably.

Fortunately the current number nine is cut from a completely different cloth and his return to the starting line-up provided reassurance, particularly with Liverpool’s main rivals for a top four place stating their intentions before this contest had kicked-off.

If Liverpool are going to secure a spot in next season’s Champions League – it might take as many as another seven wins to achieve that goal – having Torres available to start matches between now and May 9 is imperative.

Will it be possible? Every time a bruising central defender or an overzealous full-back clatters into Torres, fingers are clasped over eyes and prayers are offered to higher places, hoping any damage he may have sustained isn’t serious.

Inevitably, he took a buffeting here. As you would expect, Allardyce’s tactics were primitive and Blackburn were nothing but agricultural; all nasty, spiteful challenges, pushes and shoves, they tried all they could to rough Torres up.

Happily, however, Torres can give as good as he gets and it was inevitable he would exact retribution in the best possible way, sliding in his 13th of the campaign with aplomb just before half-time, after good work from Lucas and Maxi Rodriguez.

That strike restored Liverpool’s lead and proved to be the winner, after a Keith Andrews penalty – awarded when Jamie Carragher inadvertently handled – had enabled Blackburn to restore parity; one game back, one goal, three points. That’s how important he is.

Mind you, if keeping Torres fit is essential, similar sentiments apply to Steven Gerrard. He left the impression in Bucharest on Thursday evening, both on and off the pitch, that he was ready to start making up for lost time and banish his lingering frustrations.

How it showed again yesterday. Liverpool did look a little anxious in the opening exchanges, as Blackburn sought to capitalise on any deficiencies and Nikola Kalinic went closest to opening the scoring after a mistake by Lucas.

Yet, after seeing Tottenham and Manchester City win, Gerrard was not in any mood for Liverpool to lose ground and he started and finished the move on 19 minutes which gave Benitez’s men the nerve-settling lead both they and the home crowd craved.

Seizing possession midway inside Blackburn’s half, he exchanged passes with Yossi Benayoun and surged into the area to receive the Israeli’s return ball, as Torres’ movement and presence created uncertainty. The finish, predictably, was emphatic.

There is no point dwelling on ‘what ifs’ in football, as to do so is an exercise in futility but, seeing Gerrard and Torres combine, you cannot help but wonder how different the table would have looked had they played, say another 10 games together this season.

“If Steven and Fernando play well they can score goals and maybe they can be the difference,” said Benitez, who delivered the put down of the season when saying Barcelona should copy Blackburn’s style of play.

Should they dovetail as sweetly as they have done in the past for the final 10 matches, then Liverpool will remain strong contenders for the spot they crave but it must be stressed that, as a team, there is still room for improvement.

Unable to find the goal that would have killed the contest early in the second period, Liverpool found themselves hemmed back as Blackburn propelled a succession of long balls forward – and to think the FA were considering Allardyce for the England job.

But the ploy almost paid off as deep into injury time, Christopher Samba rose to meet a Vince Grella free-kick and his header appeared destined for the bottom corner; that was, until, the outstanding Pepe Reina stretched out a hand and made a quite magnificent stop.

Cue sighs of relief all around. Two months ago, that header would, in all probability, have sneaked in and left Liverpool to launch more inquests but, perhaps, this is a sign that things have turned.

All that is required now, then, is for the international contingent to return unscathed; should that be case, Benitez can really start plotting to accomplish the mission that matters most – Liverpool’s return into the Champions League.

LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Mascherano, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio (Insua 39); Lucas, Gerrard; Kuyt, Benayoun (Babel 81), Rodriguez; Torres (Ngog 90).

BLACKBURN (4-4-2): Robinson; Salgado, Samba, Givet, Olsson (Chimbonda 51); Diouf, Andrews, Nzonzi (Grella 60), Pedersen; Kalinic, Hoilett (Roberts 65).


Copyright - Liverpool Echo

REFEREE: Alan Wiley

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