Liverpool 2 Fulham 0: Torres' talents suggest Benitez must end game of tin soldiers

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The Independent Football

This wasn't exactly the Spanish Inquisition but there were some mutterings that it might take a thumbscrew to force a confession from Rafa Benitez. Had it come to that, however, there was no question where most of the pressure would have rested.

It would have been on the guy wielding the thumbscrew. Having kept the same side from one game to another for only the second time in 160 matches, the Liverpool manager was plainly in no mood to go one step further and admit that some players demand to be selected in any circumstances.

That was the premise put to Benitez after his £26.5m signing Fernando Torres bounded off the bench in the 70th minute and made a laboured, incoherent nonsense of so much that had gone before.

It was a little ironic that Torres replaced Andriy Voronin, consistently the most intelligent and purposeful of a team that seemed to have quite forgotten how they managed to ransack Besiktas 8-0 a few days earlier. But then even the pony-tailed grafter from Ukraine had suggested that scoring a goal might be something to equate with splitting the atom. By way of the most searing contrast, Torres scored one of exquisite skill and timing in just 11 minutes.

Yet do you imagine the most stubborn man to reign at Anfield since Bill Shankly was in any mood to concede that indeed some players are good enough to operate on no one's agenda but their own? There was more chance of the Liver bird performing a fly-past. After conceding five goals to Ajax, Shankly said his team had lost to the most defensive team he had ever seen. Here was Benitez's response to the theory that Torres has game-breaking potential beyond the powers of the rest of Liverpool strike squad: "When you have four good strikers like we do, you have to manage the condition and the quality of each one. In this case we had Voronin, who was doing a fantastic job and had some chances, and Crouch, who was good in the air. But we needed something different. We need more pace and at the end of the game, with Fulham tired, Torres is ideal for that role.

"I'm sure Voronin, Crouch, Kuyt and Babel can score these goals also. In this case it was Torres, but Voronin had two chances to score also." That was true enough but while Voronin, for all his other virtues of hard work and moments of biting creativity, made a forlorn mess of his opportunities, Torres took his with such casual brilliance he might have been doing nothing more demanding than picking up the milk from the front door.

Benitez might say that 10 goals without reply and an unchanged starting team sheet is not such a bad week's work, but it remains impossible to believe that the team he is building in his own image, and his own emphatic – even untouchable – lights, is within a hundred miles of the kind of conviction and flow which sets apart champions.

It was the ability of Torres, when an otherwise deadlocked match might have been set in concrete, to offer an alternative view, another kind of possibility, that made such a dramatic impact. For much of the game Liverpool had looked as if they were grappling to connect the dots. When goalkeeper Jose Reina sent the ball into Torres's zone of influence, the puzzle was solved in one beautifully sustained flash of light. The Spaniard left Aaron Hughes, a formidable defensive redoubt until that moment, trailing hopelessly before flashing the ball beyond Antti Niemi.

Here was football on the wing, football flying beyond the always necessary requirements of discipline and organisation. It was the football that gives a team life and confidence, a belief that if they do the right things enough times the odds are there will be rewards at the end of it. Steven Gerrard, from whom the big, decisive play has become not so much a hope as a sometimes burdensome expectation, did not have to be persuaded about the value of Torres.

He said: "A lot of teams are going to be organised when they come up against us and make it difficult for us but when you have the quality we have in the squad it's nice to have someone like Fernando coming off the bench. It looked as if it was going to be a stalemate but to be fair to Voronin, he was solid until Fernando came on. It's nice to see him come back to fitness and a bit more sharpness and he will be in from the start to hopefully score a lot more goals for us."

Maybe, maybe not. When rotation is an article of faith, when a coach believes that he can move his players like so many interchangeable tin soldiers depending on calculations of optimum fitness and appetite, the aristocracy of talent can run into a degree of frustration. Here, anyway, was another word from Rafa which some of the Anfield cognoscenti might find a little disquieting: "When you have good strikers like we do," he said, "I expected us to score but I didn't know which one it would be."

Sometimes, though, there is a need to operate on the law of averages and relative talent. Fulham ran themselves silly in pursuit of a point, and almost got one. Liverpool also ran themselves to the point of distraction.

Then Fernando Torres arrived and it was a different game. It was no longer a coach's game. It was a player's game, and that was one Liverpool, with their vastly superior talent, just couldn't lose – or draw.

Goals: Torres (81) 1-0; Gerrard (85, pen) 2-0.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurelio; Benayoun, Mascherano (Lucas, 81), Gerrard, Riise (Babel, 62); Crouch, Voronin (Torres, 70). Substitutes not used: Martin (gk), Finnan.

Fulham (4-4-2): Niemi; Baird, Stefanovic, Hughes, Bocanegra; Davies, Murphy, Davis, Dempsey (Kamara, 69); Healy (Bouazza, 60), Kuqi. Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), Leijer, Smertin.

Referee: S. Tanner (Somerset).

Booked: Fulham Murphy, Dempsey.

Man of the match: Torres.

Attendance: 43, 073.

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