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Reds click into gear at last

WELL, then. Did you leave Anfield last night laughing after a performance that some described as “champagne football” or crying about what might have been?

There is no team in the Premier League that can ‘do’ erratic like Liverpool and last night, as they flattened Portsmouth with a crisp brand of passing, movement and goals, their Mr Hyde side – the one that has destroyed this campaign – was nowhere to be seen.

It was, of course, long overdue. You only have to cast a glance at the table to see how the Reds have underachieved and had they offered up a display similar to the monstrosity at the DW Stadium last Monday night, we would now be firmly in the midst of a crisis.

Losing to Portsmouth – who have long since been condemned to spending the next few years of their existence in the Championship – would not have been tolerated but once Fernando Torres set the ball rolling, defeat was never an option.

For once, Anfield’s gallery was able to sit back and relax, to enjoy watching men in Red shirts speed the ball in different directions to willing runners and groans of acceptance, rather than howls of despair, greeted misplaced passes.

Yet, strangely, it all seemed out of context. Was this really the club that had been stripped bare by the same Portsmouth team on December 19? Did this look anything like the ensemble that had managed just a handful of shots in last five away matches?

True, Portsmouth were desperate, showing why it is a question of ‘when’ they will be relegated, and it was difficult not to have anything other than sympathy for their supporters, who have endured enough misery in the past 12 months.

But what of Liverpool? Did you not find yourself asking ‘what if?’ as Alberto Aquilani deftly dragged a pass back to Steven Gerrard or when Liverpool’s golden pair combined by pirouetting and dummying to twist Portsmouth’s defence inside out?

This was the Liverpool that many had envisaged at the start of the season; the one that had Aquilani living up to his name of Il Principino and showing why Rafa Benitez decided to invest such a significant transfer fee to secure his signature.

They have been sighted on occasions, such as when their energy and endeavour carried them past Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United on home turf or when they played with incredible discipline at Villa Park.

Should they continue in this mood, who is to say they won’t qualify for the Champions League? After all, the run-in is hardly laced with stiff tests and while Portsmouth were shocking, this type of effort would be good enough to get something at Old Trafford.

A penny for Benitez’s thoughts. Pilloried for Liverpool’s lamentable displays and the man held responsible for some of his players’ poor form, he more than anyone would have felt a contrast in emotions as he headed for home.

Any uncertainty surrounding his future will disappear if Liverpool continue to make things look so easy and there is reason for thinking that he has struck upon a winning formula – for starters here, his midfield screamed creativity.

With Aquilani, Ryan Babel, Maxi Rodriguez and Gerrard playing support roles behind Torres, few could dispute that Benitez had picked a side laced with adventure, the only debate surrounded whether they could harness their creativity.

The first 15 minutes suggested not, as the game struggled to take shape; the pace was pedestrian, chances were non existent and there was a definite sense of anxiety; surely it could not be another one of this episodes to forget?

Then, in the blink of an eye, it clicked. Aquilani exchanged passes with Rodriguez, surged into the penalty area and dragged a chance on the volley wide; he might have failed to hit the target but it clearly gave him confidence.

As it did the team. Moments later, Gerrard charged down Portsmouth keeper Jamie Ashdown’s attempted clearance down, the ball fell Rodriguez and he showed great poise to give Torres the simplest of opportunities.

Rodriguez has been viewed with scepticism by a certain supporters since he arrived from Atletico Madrid but there has been a definite improvement in his form in the past fortnight and this was another step in the right direction.

Sentiments which apply to Babel; only time will tell if he has a long-term future at Anfield but when he looks as hungry and committed as this, it leaves you exasperated that he hasn’t produce it on a regular basis.

He richly deserved his goal, astutely toe-poking a right-footed shot into the bottom of the Kop net after fine play by Torres; another might have followed in the second half but Ashdown tipped a 20-yard drive on to the bar.

Scoring twice in the space of 90 seconds certainly lifted the mood but the highlight of the night was not far away and Aquilani grabbed Liverpool’s third in the space of six minutes – remember the last time they did that? – when finishing a magnificent move.

Torres and Gerrard combined with breathtaking efficiency on the left hand side to present Aquilani with a chance he was never going to miss; sweeping the ball past Ashdown, he was wheeling away in celebration before the net had bulged.

On a night when there were many fine performances – Torres showed flashes of sublime skill, Rodriguez was efficient and diligent, while Gerrard revelled in the space which he was afforded – Aquilani stole the show.

Clearly enjoying himself, he went through his repertoire of passing; long and short, every ball met its target and none was better than the pass which created Torres’ second on 77 minutes, zipping into the Spaniard’s feet and hinting a great partnership being formed.

This was only the third time that Aquilani, Torres and Gerrard have started a game since he joined the club – Liverpool’s record when they have been on from the first whistle is won three, scored seven, nine points, one conceded.

Unfortunately, a blemish arrived late on when Nadir Belhadj pilfered a consolation but it would be churlish to quibble about that; for now enjoy the moment – and keep your fingers crossed this is the Liverpool we see between now and May 9.

LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson (Kelly 70), Carragher, Agger, Insua; Gerrard (Benayoun 74), Mascherano; Babel, Aquilani, Rodriguez; Torres (Ngog 80).

PORTSMOUTH (4-1-3-2): Ashdown; Finnan, Rocha, Wilson, Hreidarsson (Owusu-Abeyie 76); Brown; Bouba Diop (Mokoena 64), O’Hara (Webber 85), Belhadj; Dindane, Piquionne.

Goals: Torres (26, 77), Babel (28), Aquilani (32), Belhadj (88) Bookings – Mokoena (78), Dindane (78)

Attendance: 40,316

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

Referee: S Attwell

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