by Stuart Jones of "The Times"
The Eagles of Lisbon flew back to Portugal late last night, bedraggled and bemused. They had come to Anfield for the first-leg of a second-round European Cup tie knowing that the English champions were limping with injuries and struggling to rediscover their form. Here, apparently, was an opportunity to depose the kings of the Continent.
But those who dismiss Liverpool, on any front, are playing a dangerous game, and those who ignore Rush are likely to pay the price. Even though he was appearing for only the second time this season since recovering from a cartilage operation, he ruffled Benfica's feathers and claimed all three goals in little over half an hour.
Rush is an extraordinary predator. The scorer of 47 goals last season was covered with rust, and he looked lost outside the penalty area, where the ball seemed a slippery object beyond his control. Inside it, the ball appeared to follow him around and obey instructions that were born more out of instinct than careful thought.
His goals were remarkably similar to each other. After poor defensive clearances and wayward efforts by his colleagues, he struck from close range. The first, after 43 minutes, was created by Lawrenson's powerful run to the by-line and Wark's prod. The second, after 71 minutes, was provided by Lee's floated cross and Whelan's misdirected shot.
The third, after 76 minutes, came from Johnston's centre, and another wild header by Whelan. Rush might even have added a fourth near the end, although such a margin on victory would have flattered Liverpool, who have yet to recover from the loss of Souness in the middle of their designs.
The latest man chosen to fill the chasm was Lawrenson, one of the finest defenders in the world; but he does not control the rhythm of the game as Souness once did. Whereas Liverpool once flowed, they now advance with a stutter, unsure of where they are going next.
The incomparable Dalglish remains above such doubts. Without his vision, his speed of thought and foot, Liverpool would have been soaked in mediocrity, as well as by the ceaseless rain during the first half. He opened doors for Whelan, and Rush twice, and lobbed narrowly over the bar himself. Even the headers of Wark and Lawrenson carried little threat.
The arrival of Johnston, replacing the injured Wark after the interval and playing for the first time since Liverpool's final triumph in Rome last May, was scarcely designed to improve their fluency. But a moment of defensive hesitation by another irregular member of the side was to prove even more disruptive.
Gillespie, starting only his fourth game in 18 months, marred an otherwise accomplished performance in the 51st minute. He lost his concentration and then his footing on the sodden turf, letting Diamantino through. Realising the lack of options, he drew Grobbelaar, went round the retreating Gillespie again, and equalised from an oblique angle.
Benfica might then have been optimistic about gaining revenge for their 5-1 aggregate defeat in last season's quarter-final. The man who transformed that tie in the first leg at Anfield last March was Dalglish, also returning from a lengthy absence. The Portugese hailed him as "a Messiah". Rush personifies the second coming.
Joe Fagan, the Liverpool manager, was clearly very relieved after the victory. "Thank God for that," he said. "We really needed a good win for the fans and the players. It was gloom and doom, but this win should do the lads good and I won't have a sleepless night tonight." Praising Rush, Fagan added: "He set an example to all his colleagues, not only in his scoring, but also in his willingness to tackle back. He wins the ball so often it provides a psychological boost for defenders."
Copyright - The Times