Liverpool 3 Middlesbrough 2: Torres calls the tune but may be a one-man band

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The Independent Football

It is gratifying to know, when a striker has spent an afternoon turning your feet to clay, that others have suffered the same and especially so when they happen to include your own manager.

Gareth Southgate's first Fernando Torres moment came at the Riverside during Middlesbrough's pre-season game against Atletico Madrid three years ago. "I retired for a reason," was his wry conclusion on Saturday night when he remembered that 2-1 defeat in which Torres scored, as he has four times more in Boro's two encounters with Liverpool this season. "You could see the talent and that he would fit into the English game no problem."

Emanuel Pogatetz and David Wheater will have wearily concurred with that. The Boro central defenders might also find it hard to believe that Torres has never exceeded his current tally of 21 goals in a season and has only ever won silverware at Under-16 and Under-19 level. "I'd prefer to be remembered as someone who helped Liverpool to win trophies than as a great goalscorer," the Spaniard said and there are grounds for believing he meant it.

But the shortage of pots was not the only shortcoming Torres experienced at Atletico's Vicente Calderon stadium, where he was one part prodigy, one part folk hero. The side's steadfast reliance on El Nino also got him down in the end. "Any team has to be built on collective responsibility but at Atletico I had too much and I had to take on the responsibility of others, too," Torres revealed recently.

That is beginning to sound dangerously like his current position at Liverpool. Rafael Benitez used his time in Madrid as evidence of his ability to handle the pressure after observing him demolish Boro with a second hat-trick of the season. "For six or seven years he was a key player, the captain, the icon of the club, so he knows how to deal and manage with pressure," the Liverpool manager said. "He was the idol of everyone, and here it is the same". But it might not be too long before Torres is craving a little more collective effort again.

Though Southgate was gracious enough to say that "without the players around him Torres wouldn't be as effective," the assists were obligingly provided here by Boro's Julio Arca – whose attempted 35-yard header back to Mark Schwarzer in his own goal Torres gleefully latched on to – and the collective efforts of Schwarzer and Wheater, who loafed about for long enough dealing with a 70-yard Dirk Kuyt pass to let Torres hook the ball in past the two of them.

Torres' electrifying pace was as tricky for Southgate's defence as it was for the BBC's Alan Green, presumably trying – with minimal success – to maintain an air of neutrality as he watched as a punter in the main stand. Green held his head in his hands when the Spaniard flashed a shot across goal after Steven Gerrard had sent him racing away from Pogatetz for a possible fourth.

No such problems with Ryan Babel, a player seemingly still no nearer to entering fully Liverpool's attacking equation, who glittered for half an hour, danced past Luke Young to create a chance Kuyt might have finished – and faded just as rapidly.

The bright sparks, Torres aside, were fielded by Southgate – the most striking of them Tuncay Sanli, who made life as miserable for Sami Hyypia as Torres did for Boro. Heaven knows why he selected an arm to convert Stewart Downing's cross in an attempt to square things up at 2-2, 25 minutes after nodding in the opener.

Of course, some days the fates will not stop conspiring against you and so, just after Downing had skipped beyond the hapless Steve Finnan to score and breathe new life into the match, Jérémie Aliadière was harshly dismissed for raising a hand after Javier Mascherano petulantly tweaked his nose.

It was a return to the top four in the Premier League for Tommy, son of Liverpool's co-owner Tom Hicks, to observe from the stands and a better display than some of the more disjointed efforts of late. Yet for Liverpool fans the mystery of what this side might actually achieve this season is no more fathomable.

Goals: Tuncay (9) 0-1; Torres (28) 1-1; Torres (29) 2-1; Torres (61) 3-1; Downing (83) 3-2.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Finnan, Arbeloa, Hyypia, Aurelio; Mascherano, Lucas; Kuyt (Riise, 73), Gerrard, Babel (Benayoun, 62); Torres (Crouch, 89). Substitutes not used: Martin (gk), Skrtel.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Young, Wheater, Pogatetz, Grounds; O'Neil (Mido, 59), Rochemback, Arca, Downing; Aliadière, Tuncay (Alves, 69). Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Boateng, Hines.

Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).

Booked: Liverpool Reina, Finnan; Middlesbrough Aliadière, Tuncay, Wheater. Rochemback, Young.

Sent off: Aliadière (85).

Man of the match: Torres.

Attendance: 43,612.