Fernando Torres brilliance defeats Benfica

IT had to be him. The man who was dragged off on Easter Sunday to a chorus of incredulity has thrillingly dragged Liverpool’s season off the canvas.

Rafa Benitez felt obliged to substitute Fernando Torres once again last night but, unlike had been the case in Birmingham five days ago, there was no rancour or recrimination, just deafening applause, long and loud.

Giving a master class in the art of centre-forward play, Torres was the spearhead for a Liverpool performance that had everything you want from a memorable European night, one that has led those who look for omens to become increasingly giddy.

The last time Liverpool swatted Benfica aside 4-1, they ended up winning the European Cup in a ground that was home to their opponents in the final – what price, then, a May 12 showdown with Hamburg in Hamburg?

Now Liverpool are in the last four of the Europa League, it would take a brave man to bet against them going all the way; they were sensational here, making opponents who have been much-vaunted look second rate on a night when the old stadium rocked.

On far too many occasions this season, a mood of melancholy has gripped Anfield before each kick-off, with apathy and indifference hanging heavily in the air, as Liverpool have laboured from one game to another.

Here, however, it was a stark contrast, a throwback to what this stadium can be like when everyone is united behind a common cause; the singing, for example, of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ had a defiance that has not been heard since Tottenham’s visit in January.

That said, it did not inspire a grandstand opening, as Liverpool failed to carve out a worthwhile opportunity and, if anything, they had to be on guard of the rapier counterattacks of which Benfica were more than capable of launching.

More worrying was the sight of Torres moving gingerly in the opening exchanges; those who thought the placement of an ice pack on his right knee at St Andrews on Sunday was a smokescreen would have been forced to re-evaluate as early as the third minute.

Just before the half hour, the goal home supporters had been baying for arrived, albeit in bizarre circumstances, from a man from whom you can set your clock by.

Dirk Kuyt is not someone who will win popularity contests on the terraces but how many times has he popped up at the most appropriate moment? As was the case in February’s derby, he sent Anfield into raptures with a header from a Steven Gerrard corner.

For it to nearly be chalked off by one official who adjudged Kuyt to be offside was utterly absurd, the initial decision sending Benitez, his coaching staff and players apoplectic but, mercifully, Kuyt’s compatriot Bjorn Kuipers saw justice was done.

With Steven Gerrard’s through ball perfectly weighted and splitting Benfica’s defence in two, Lucas beat the offside trap and showed admirable poise to round Julio Caesar before rolling the ball into the empty Anfield net.

There is a huge irony surrounding Lucas and the relationship he has with Liverpool supporters; the bigger the hole his team are in, the more he tries, running, tackling and hassling to help turn the situation.

Yet the moment he squanders possession or misses a chance to score, derision rains down on him; Lucas actually plays with the same desire and commitment as those who dream of pulling on a Red shirt. This moment in the sun was the least he deserved.

On 58 minutes; Pepe Reina plucked a Benfica corner out of the air and ushered Javier Mascherano forward and so ensued a move that appeared to be played out on a pinball machine.

From the Argentine out possession went to Yossi Benayoun, who then hurried it on to the opposite flank where Kuyt was galloping forward and then, in the blink of an eye, he fizzed in a low ball that Torres swept past Julio Caesar.

Brilliant. Five passes from goal to goal, it was a reminder of the football Liverpool can play; why it has not been seen more often during the current campaign is a crying shame but if they reproduce it during the final few weeks, who knows what might be possible?

Hearts may have fluttered when Oscar Cardozo thrashed in a late free-kick but, thanks to the tigerish determination of Lucas and Mascherano, another chance came Torres’ way and he settled any jangling nerves by finishing from 10 yards.

Now he has a date to look forward to in Madrid against his first love; it will be an emotional night for Torres when he returns to the Vicente Calderon – but sentiment will not stand in the way of him possibly securing his first medal for Liverpool.

LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Agger; Lucas, Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard (Aquilani 88), Benayoun (El Zhar 90); Torres (Ngog 86). Subs: Cavalieri (GK), Aquilani, Degen, Ayala, Pacheco.

Goals : Kuyt (28), Lucas (34), Torres (58, 82) Bookings: Benayoun (75)

BENFICA (4-1-3-1-1): Julio Cesar (Moreria 80); Amorim, Luisao, Sidnei, David Luiz; Garcia; Ramires, Martins (Kardec 67), Di Maria; Aimar (Coentrao 87); Cardozo. Subs: Airton, Maxi Pereira, Menezes, Luis. Goals : Cardozo (70) Bookings – Aimar (84)


REFEREE: Bjorn Kuipers (Holland)

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