Baros plays lead role in Liverpool's rebirth

Liverpool 3 - Crystal Palace 2
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The Independent Football

Carrying on his shoulders Liverpool's lack of Djibril Cissé, through injury, and Michael Owen, through the terminal ignorance of how to get the best out of the man who is currently the toast of Madrid, is just one of Milan Baros's burdens. More taxing in the long run may be his already deeply entrenched reputation as one of the most spectacular divers since Greg Louganis.

Carrying on his shoulders Liverpool's lack of Djibril Cissé, through injury, and Michael Owen, through the terminal ignorance of how to get the best out of the man who is currently the toast of Madrid, is just one of Milan Baros's burdens. More taxing in the long run may be his already deeply entrenched reputation as one of the most spectacular divers since Greg Louganis.

Some perfectionists also tend to believe that if he occasionally looked up and recognised the presence of a team-mate he might already be enshrined in Anfield legend.

However, the Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, firmly believes that the Czech flier, like Caesar, should be given the credit he is due. "Yes," said Benitez, "you could say that Milan needs to improve in some areas like vision, but it's not so easy to say that when he has just scored three goals. You want all your players, and your team, to improve game by game, but I have to say I am very pleased with the way he is helping the team."

Baros's hat-trick was the result not so much of trickery but a combination of power running and predatory instincts that simply overwhelmed an otherwise well organised Palace defence. Two of the goals came from penalties that referee Phil Dowd was obliged to grant - he might easily have awarded another - and the third exploited an eruption of sorcery between Xabi Alonso and Harry Kewell, so sweetly it might have been authored by the only man ahead of Baros in the Premiership scoring list, Thierry Henry.

That, on a day when Liverpool's rising level of creativity was mostly held in check by Palace's vigour and impressive discipline, meant that Benitez could cite more than precedent for his refusal to utter a whisper of criticism. After last week's sickening home loss to Birmingham, pure gratitude indeed seemed the most legitimate guide to any analysis of Baros's performance by the Liverpool manager.

Take away the striker's cutting edge, his relentless pursuit of anything that sniffed of opportunity, and Benitez's infant Anfield revolution would surely have been at the mercy of Palace's belief that they have what it takes to survive.

Palace's optimism is beginning to look well- founded. Manager Iain Dowie has long been a cult figure at Selhurst Park and more performances like this one from Palace will no doubt draw a wider following.

Though injury robbed them of their own one-man strike force, Andy Johnson, Palace had plenty of fight and excellent balance. Their exuberant little Finnish winger Joonas Kolkka scored one goal of beautiful touch, and made another when he crossed perfectly for Michael Hughes to equalise in the second half. But for the Baros factor, those quick, brilliantly realised break-outs, plus the impressive running of teenager Wayne Routledge, would have underlined the gathering assurance of a team widely dismissed as Premiership cannon fodder at the start of the season.

It would have also cast even more severe doubt on the capacity of Benitez to return Liverpool to the serious end of the action. It would have been a pity, because if the Spaniard clearly has mountains of work to do, he has already made a huge contribution to the spirit of Anfield in his first few months. He has brought football back to the old place. Real football that is, football of the imagination and of genuine touch and spontaneity.

The responsibility for this, in the continued absence of Steven Gerrard, is resting hugely on the subtleties of Alonso. The evidence of this game is that the Spaniard is capable of rising brilliantly to the challenge. His passing is at times both surgical and exquisite, and all the more dazzling as they come after the Houllier years of formless pressure.

Long or short, Alonso's delivery is as penetrative as it is precise. Once even Jamie Carragher, mystifyingly appearing in a forward position, benefited from the kind of through-ball which, had it come last spring, would have had Owen believing he had wandered into heaven.

Benitez said that what pleased him most was that his team played right up to Baros's winner in stoppage time. "It is something you always want in your team," he said. "That way you always have the chance to win. It is the most important thing." Such application is vital, no doubt, but ultimately no more so than having a way to play, a rhythm that can be maintained whatever the course of the action.

Whether Alonso's compatriots Josemi and Luis Garcia have the potential to play such crucial roles in the development of a new Liverpool has to be more doubtful. Garcia produced some bewitching moments, but overall his impact was slight and nor was it any surprise when Josemi was sacrificed in the pursuit of more weight up front which came with the introduction of Neil Mellor with 11 minutes to go.

For the moment, though, Benitez has surely bought himself a little time. He may not, as his predecessor did, launch himself with a hat-trick of trophy wins. Instead, he may even make a false turn or two. But then already it is possible to see the point of his journey. It is to play a little closer to the heart of a great football city.

Goals: Baros (23) pen 1-0; Kolkka (44) 1-1; Baros (45) 2-1; Hughes (52) 2-2; Baros (90) pen 3-2.

Liverpool (4-4-2) : Kirkland; Josemi (Mellor, 79), Carragher, Hyypia, Traoré; Garcia, Alonso, Hamann, Riise (Finnan, 62); Baros (Sinama-Pongolle, 90), Kewell. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Biscan.

Crystal Palace (4-1-4-1) : Kiraly; Leigertwood, Boyce, Popovic, Granville; Riihilahti (Soares, 76); Routledge (Lakis, 65), Hughes, Watson, Kolkka; Freedman. Substitutes not used: Speroni (gk) Andrews, Hudson.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Booked: Liverpool: Baros. Crystal Palace: Kiraly, Hughes, Kolkka.

Man of the match: Baros.

Attendance: 42,862.

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