Liverpool 3 Middlesbrough 2: Torres trick torments Boro

More Barnsley than Internazionale, it might often have been, but it does not matter as much when Fernando Torres scales heights like this.

The Spaniard brilliantly struck his second Liverpool hat-trick and first at Anfield to take his league goal tally to 21, restore his side to fourth place and relieve more of the pressure on Rafael Benitez.

Although gifted two of his three by Middlesbrough's uncharacteristic benevolence, he was the difference – the special one in a performance that was anything but.

Middlesbrough caused early flutters with a goal by the fit-again Tuncay Sanli and threatened a tense finish until Jérémie Aliadière was sent off five minutes from time. But it was Torres's day and he went off to a standing ovation before returning to belatedly persuade the referee, Lee Mason, to part with the match ball.

"It's really difficult to come over here and score 20 goals in the first year, so I'm very pleased with him," Benitez said. "Anything is possible for him now. After scoring the third goal, we might have had more."

Benitez deemed FA Cup elimination one day of rotation too many and made only one change from the team, Jamie Carragher's suspension letting in Alvaro Arbeloa. But Liverpool's defence were spreadeagled – and possibly let down by the officials – when Middlesbrough scored inside eight minutes.

Stewart Downing's free-kick was delivered with curl and pace from the right, and clearly there was anticipation of an offside flag as Tuncay ran free to head in from close range. Sami Hyypia made his feelings known to the assistant referee as Liverpool's quest for only their second League win since Boxing Day became a stiffer test.

Their response was sluggish and, when a chance did come along, it was dallying by Emanuel Pogatetz after Ryan Babel's cross that enabled Dirk Kuyt to rush in and fire over on the turn. That errant defending was nothing though compared with the charity that brought the 28th-minute equaliser. Julio Arca's unnecessary headed back-pass was woefully short and left the composed Torres to round Mark Schwarzer and score.

Barely a minute later, the striker had Liverpool in front. From a similar position to the one from which he scored at Middlesbrough last month, a neat link-up between Hyypia, Babel and Fabio Aurelio set him up to power right-footed, low to Schwarzer's right from 25 yards.

With Liverpool still not firing, Boro netted twice more before half-time, Tuncay being rightly penalised first for steering home Downing's centre with his arm and then for straying offside before Aliadière drove in.

Middlesbrough's eight-game unbeaten run effectively ended just past the hour though, and again it was all about the quality of finishing. Kuyt's long through-ball drew a misjudged advance by Schwarzer and, as David Wheater hesitated, Torres controlled the ball and hooked in from 20 yards.

In Liverpool's subsequent surge, Lucas miscued a header from Steven Gerrard's free-kick, Schwarzer saved brilliantly as Torres tore past Pogatetz and Gerrard struck the woodwork.

They nevertheless wobbled when Downing outsmarted Yossi Benayoun to finish well from an angle, only for Aliadière to rise to the bait when goaded by Javier Mascherano and be shown a straight red card for slapping the Argentinian's face.

"We have given them a hell of a game and should have taken something," said the Middlesbrough manager, Gareth Southgate. "But we have to hold our hands up after conceding goals in the manner we did."

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