Torres strikes to ease tension and seal Liverpool's progress
Liverpool 3 Lille 0 (Liverpool win 3-1 on aggregate)
Friday 19 March 2010
A tournament sponsored by a middle-of-the-range Spanish carmaker never seemed likely to quicken the pulse of Rafael Benitez but it is having restorative qualities amid this most forgettable of Anfield seasons.
Liverpool could easily have perished quietly here, 1-0 behind from the first leg to one of the Europa League's most prolific goalscoring sides who have formed part of this season's French revolution. But the the first leg deficit created turned the occasion into something resembling one of those great Anfield European nights. Nothing to hold a candle to Saint Etienne here, in March 1977, maybe: the European Cup is a dim and distant dream. But the way that Fernando Torres rubbed his hands before the match ball was first tossed to him told you that if team spirit is any judge, Liverpool are anything but the "sinking ship" Albert Riera suggested in his ill-timed outburst this week.
Riera's characterisation of Benitez as cold, unresponsive and inattentive is not borne out by the apparent effects of the dressing down the manager dished out 10 days ago after Liverpool's season reached one of its nadirs in defeat at Wigan. "He (Benitez) is the manager and he's allowed to criticise the team at the right time but I think the reaction over the last two games has been superb," captain Steven Gerrard said, reflecting on seven home goals in a week at Anfield.
Fernando Torres missed a hatful at Wigan but is looking again like the kind of goal accumulator none of the other fourth-place challengers can boast. The two Torres goals which bookended last night's second half – the Spaniard latched on to a lofted Ryan Babel ball which deceived Adil Rami and pounced after Gerrard's shot after Dirk Kuyt had seized possession in the 90th minute – make it four in a week. Sir Alex Ferguson was not here last night, leaving the task of scouting Sunday's opponents to first team coach Rene Meulensteen. But Torres' five goals in five starts since he returned from his six-week lay-off are enough to haunt Nemanja Vidic with memories of the destruction wreaked on him in last season's 4-1 Old Trafford defeat.
Asked how close Torres is to full fitness, Benitez joked last night that "I would like to say he is 50 per cent now." The curiosity is that striker doesn't look like a player who is not at peace. There was a third booking for dissent in four games, last night.
The course of the night could have been different when Eden Hazard – the 19-year-old Belgian whose first-leg goal proved he as dangerous at pace as his name suggests – burst past Daniel Agger and Glen Johnson into the Liverpool area late in the first half and fired a shot which deflected off the head of Reina, who stood tall. Chelsea can attest to the fact that whole tournaments can rest on such moments as that.
But Liverpool pressed with such determination high up the field that Lille, who had scored in each of their 13 Europa League games this season, could barely muster another clear opening. Lucas Leiva, who was in a more advanced role than is customary, needed only eight minutes to run with venom into the Lille area and draw centre back Adi Rami to stick out a leg and foul him. Gerrard deposited the penalty to Mickael Landreau's right. Other queued up in that first half. Johnson placed a half volley at Landreau; an Agger glancing header from a Gerrard corner was stopped on the goalline by the goalkeeper and a second sailed narrowly over the bar.
Liverpool, of all sides, could not rest easy with two goals: a late Lille reply to go with those conceded in three fixtures against French opposition this season would have put them out. Ludovic Obraniak's 73rd minute free kick reached substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who drove his shot into the ground and over the bar. Nerves shredded more when Pepe Reina dashed out for Obraniak's corner and failed to connect properly. Torres waited until the very end to end the torture.
Benitez, who expects Daniel Agger to have recovered from a kick in the back to be fit for Sunday, will not contemplate a run all the way to the Hamburg final. "If we win the next round we will be happy and I will see you in the next press conference," he said. A judicious reply. Liverpool are not the Rolls Royce of the Europe. But the engine is turning.
Liverpool (4-4-2) Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger (Kyrgiakos, 90), Insua; Mascherano, Lucas; Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel (Benayoun, 81); Torres )Ngog, 90). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri, Degen, El Zhar, Kelly.
Lille (4-3-3) Landreau; Beria, Chedjou, Rami, Emerson; Balmont (Aubarneyang, 71), Mavuba, Cabaye; Hazard (Vandam, 86), Frau (Touré, 58), Obraniak. Substitutes not used: Butelle, Dumont, Souare, Souquet.
Referee: N Rizzoli (Italy).
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