Sunday, 25 October 2009

Fernando Torres beats Ferdinand for speed to lift Anfield gloom

An eternal fascination of games between elite clubs is that sometimes they come down to a duel between two world-class players. For all the sound and fury here, Liverpool and Manchester were prised apart when Fernando Torres went mano e mano with Rio Ferdinand and blasted a goal that blew away the depression settling over Anfield.

Bringing El Niño to Merseyside was the best piece of business Rafael Benítez is ever likely to conduct. Not that joy ever shows on the martinet's face. After Torres had beaten Ferdinand for speed and strength to breach Edwin van der Sar's goal in the 65th minute Benítez merely flicked his hand to convey a tactical signal to another Liverpool player and then glanced at his watch, perhaps to make sure he had turned it back an hour. This austere, dispassionate response concealed the scale of Torres's contribution to the manager's survival campaign in the wake of four consecutive defeats.

As Benítez said later: "Eighty per cent of Fernando can make the difference." The other 20% was still in a physiotherapy room. Torres had not trained properly all week. He missed the midweek Champions League defeat against Lyon and seemed unlikely to haul himself back into action for such a frenetic and physical encounter. On the coach on the way to Anfield Benítez gambled, mindful maybe that the alternatives were Andriy Voronin, Dirk Kuyt or David Ngog, who raised his lowly profile with his team's second, deep into added time.

Liverpool's alternative motto: Find a corner, then fight your way out. Their almost clinical need for adversity is baffling. A fifth defeat would have matched the club's worst sequence since 1953. "Playing as a team and working hard the way Liverpool do, we can beat anyone," Torres said. A player of such lavish gifts is entitled to sprinkle a bit more poetry into his post-match comments. But the foundation of all Liverpool's efforts is defiance and even Torres reflects that spirit. He can have a war with you or beat you with beauty. This volcanic derby required him to do both.

By the end arguably the world's best centre-forward could hardly stand. His body trembled with exhaustion and his eyes called out for him to be rescued. After 80 minutes he was replaced by Ngog. The ovation rocked the stadium: a sharp counterpoint to the venom directed at Michael Owen, once of this parish. "Judas, traitor, Manc," they howled, then chanted "Once a Manc, never a Red."

In such a febrile atmosphere no allowance was going to be made for the fact that Owen would have returned to Anfield on several occasions since his move to Real Madrid but was not pursued and might have finished up at Stoke or Hull had United not offered him work when his Newcastle contract expired. The denunciation of Owen in an arena where he once performed the Torres role was so fierce that Wayne Rooney made a point of consoling him as Sir Alex Ferguson's men traipsed off.

Ferguson ruminated on "the wounded animal aspect" of Liverpool's tenacious performance. "We had to win to get back in the title race," Torres beamed. For every reveller there is a victim. Somewhere deep in hostile territory Ferdinand would have been agonising over the private battle he lost when Yossi Benayoun, the closest this Liverpool squad have to a Steve McManaman, collected the ball from Kuyt and slipped it down the inside-right channel to bring Torres into combat with the England centre-half.

There was, in Ferdinand's heavy-footed response to this threat, another hint that he mistrusts his body and lacks the pace and agility to smother all forms of danger, as he can in his pomp. Torres was quicker and more robust as the two reputations came together. As Ferdinand leaned and lagged, Torres composed himself and had time to thump his shot into Van der Sar's top left-hand corner. The Kop is known for its eruptions of pleasure, belligerence, relief and this one will pass into the top-10 goal celebrations of Benítez's uneven reign.

Torres has now scored 34 goals in 35 league games at Anfield. Tormenting United's central defenders is one of his favourite pastimes. Though Ngog later put the game beyond Liverpool, there is no question that industry and organisation alone would not have brought them victory without the brilliance their £26m striker brings to the forward areas.

Frankly, without him, Liverpool are a severely diminished force. It was a measure of Benítez's desperation that he had to risk him when he "was not 100% fit". On Tuesday Steven Gerrard limped off against Lyon. Gamble failed. This time it worked. Kuyt (last weekend at Sunderland) and Ngog (against Lyon) had demonstrated the paucity of Liverpool's resources in the striking department. Whether internal politics or lack of foresight is responsible, the front of this team has been mismanaged and Liverpool's chances of sustaining this revival hang on Torres's ability to stay sound in a league that has caused him to be increasingly grumpy and querulous under the weight of incoming challenges.

He may resent the philistines who knock him about and the referees who sometimes fail to protect him but sheer force of talent always carries him to the heart of the drama, where his athleticism and grace usually do the rest.

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