Adoration all round for Gerrard's divine skills

Preston North End 0 Liverpool 2

If the pitch had turned into water Steven Gerrard would no doubt have continued to stride purposefully across its surface, providing still more reason for Liverpool's assistant manager Sammy Lee to sound like the chief witness in a fast-track canonisation application to the Vatican.

Saint Stevie G was certainly a virtuous figure from the moment he stepped out of the team bus amid a posse of Lancashire's finest to when he laid on a goal for Fernando Torres with such blazing selflessness the only surprise was that a beam of light did not play down from the sky.

Lee's face did display, however, a strangely beatific glow when he declared, "He was brilliant but that's no surprise to us because Stevie Gerrard is a model pro. People say he's had a difficult week, OK, but we're going to stand by him. He's a terrific servant for this football club and ambassador. He's our player and you've seen the benefit for the football club today with the performance he put in."

There was certainly no doubt about one aspect of Liverpool's ultimate cruise into the fourth round of an FA Cup that in recent years had turned into a mirror on all the ambiguities of their pursuit of domestic honours. It was that if it is hard not to see Liverpool's passionately unconditional support of the embattled captain now facing serious criminal charges in some ways ethically dubious, the competitive value of it could scarcely have been more powerfully underlined by the man himself.

Whatever the tale on the police blotter, this was an epic statement by a major player plainly intent, perhaps never before in such concentrated fashion, on producing the best of himself.

He ran the game so imperiously, and, yes virtuously, that he created something suspiciously like awe among the scrappiest of opponents who eventually proved why they have such an enviable Championship record of resolution in even the most difficult circumstances. When the battle was over, Preston captain Paul McKenna paid the most spectacular tribute. He brushed aside his team-mates for the honour of claiming Gerrard's shirt, having earlier issued a dressing room eulogy to his personal hero.

Gerrard's former team-mate Neil Mellor was no less effusive, saying, "I think he's the best in the world when you take everything into consideration. He can play five or six different positions and still looks the best player on the pitch. I've seen him play right-back and left-back before and be man of the match.

"There are not many players in the world who have that sort of quality and versatility. I know Ronaldo's a great individual player but I think Gerrard has everything. He doesn't have a bad game. He's a great leader on the pitch and inspires a lot of players. I think any midfielder is a fan of Steven Gerrard. Every player wanted his shirt. Our skipper was talking about him very highly and was made up he got it."

In view of such rave reviews for Gerrard, you may wonder how it was that Preston managed not only to avoid serious slaughter but finished up making life quite difficult for the Premier League leaders before suffering the last-minute coup-de-grâce. Quite a bit of it was to do with the latest show of profligacy from Robbie Keane.

The man who hit such consistently functional levels at White Hart Lane again lapsed into uncertainty that was nothing less than haunting. Lee, who is beginning to make Pollyanna seem like the last word in cynicism, said that he was delighted by the way Keane was finding good positions and that there was absolutely no reason to say the £20m Irishman was in crisis. This was slightly at odds with the fact Keane missed three sitters, one after a sublime flick from Saint Steven, before giving way to Torres in the 73rd minute.

In normal circumstances, the arrival after lengthy injury of Torres and all his certainties in front of goal would surely have commanded a more intense audience, but perhaps inevitably the on-field assurance of the man who will stay at the top of the sports news agenda until his appearance in court later this month overshadowed all else.

Still, if anyone was listening, Torres also had a compelling, and much less complicated, message for Liverpool fans now aching for fulfilment in the title race.

Torres said, "It is always frustrating when you are missing games. You want to be out there helping your team-mates and working hard, but the injury is in the past now. I have forgotten about it and am only looking forward. I hope all my hamstring injuries are over and I can keep playing and scoring for Liverpool. The team has shown they can win without Stevie and without me. This is very important. It shows that we play as a team.

"They have done very well and deserve a lot of credit. I want to try to play my part too. I came to Liverpool to win trophies and I hope this can be the year when we do that. I want 2009 to be better than 2008 in terms of Liverpool. We have the Cup and also the Premier League and the Champions League to try to do well in. We know the league is very important to the fans. We are at the top of the league and we will try to stay there.

"The relationship I have with the fans is special. I know that. When I was injured to hear them still singing their song was special. I could hear it on the TV when I was at home. They seem to love me and I want to win the Premiership for this club."

Torres' compatriots Albert Riera and Xabi Alonso were also entitled to some of the affection which will surely become a little more diffused once the crisis of favourite son Gerrard is resolved. Riera scored superbly to first subdue Preston and until he was cut down by Richard Chaplow, and required seven stitches, Alonso was a serious runner for man of the match – if not a place in the directory of saints.

Goals: Riera (25) 0-1; Torres (90) 0-2.

Preston (4-4-2): Lonergan; Jones, Mawene, St Ledger, Davidson (Nolan, 54); Sedgwick, Chaplow (Nicholson, 82), McKenna, Wallace; Parkin, Mellor (Elliott, 62). Substitutes not used: Neal (gk), Brown, Carter, Whaley.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Cavalieri; Carragher, Hyypia, Agger, Insua; Alonso (Lucas, h-t), Mascherano (Aurelio, 82); Babel, Gerrard, Riera; Keane (Torres, 73). Substitutes not used: Reina (gk), Ngog, El Zhar, Skrtel.

Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire)

Booked: Preston Chaplow.

Man of the match: Gerrard.

Attendance: 23,046.

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