Liverpool 4 Portsmouth 1: Torres and Mascherano provide blessed relief from Anfield strains

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The Independent Football

Thank God, the Kop must exclaim, for the sweet simplicity of Fernando Torres' instinct to score goals and the rampaging competitive heart of Javier Mascherano.

These were the points of brilliance and reliability in the Liverpool story which is becoming less a drama and more a morality tale of modern football. The latest twist, the financial embarrassment of American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett which is threatening the planned new stadium and increasing vulnerability to a revived takeover move from Dubai, had the percussive effect of a headache that will not go away.

Where does it leave the most passionate and arguably most perceptive fans in the land? Living for the moment, and leaning heavily on some classically mordant Merseyside humour.

One prophetic example came last week when Hicks and Gillett arrived at the ground to see the defeat by Manchester United and have their showdown meeting with Rafael Benitez. As the Americans emerged from their limousine, accompanied by security men, one fan shouted: "Look at those two, you would think they own the place." If you didn't know, better, of course; if you didn't know the affairs of Liverpool are now being examined like everyone else's in the credit crunch.

An intriguing theory on Benitez's passion for rotation which seems likely to return against Derby County on Boxing Day might have come from the same source. This is the one that sniffs, "He's doing it to confuse the burglars."

As the financial dealings play out, Benitez is understandably most anxious to nail down the permanent signing of Mascherano. The manager's insistence that Liverpool are still alive in the Premier League race is beginning to seem like far too much of a stretch, but despite the defeats by Reading and United he is surely strong enough to resist the rumoured eagerness of the owners to replace him with the potentially more pliable Jrgen Klinsmann. In his identification of Torres and Mascherano as key elements in a new Liverpool, Benitez has plainly done much to strengthen his support with the fans.

Torres' talent blazed spectacularly as he hit the 14-goal mark with two more that spoke of natural scoring instinct. Anfield has hardly been starved of such facility down the years, but whatever comparisons you make, from Ian St John and Roger Hunt through Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, the young man from Madrid stands up quite beautifully. He has the deadliest of all combinations, pace and certainty. On one occasion he ran Sol Campbell wide and distraught and when, finally, he left the veteran marking only space, there was almost a case for an appearance by the League Against Cruel Sports.

Mascherano did not, apart from several tackles which might have checked a runaway, produce quite such an example of God-given ability, but his every move was a confirmation that, if Argentina had overcome some bizarre coaching decisions in the last World Cup, he would have been a strong candidate for most valuable player.

Certainly against an out-of-sorts Portsmouth, who gave only a brief explanation of how it was they compiled the Premier League's best away record with a string of six victories, Mascherano seemed hell- bent on justifying Benitez's brinkmanship with the owners over his signing.

When the subject was raised, Benitez pounced like some eager salesman peddling his wares. He declared: "Mascherano can give us the balance and allow the other players to play their own game. When you have a midfielder who is in a good position and can play the ball properly and always supporting the centre-backs and also the attack, it's really important for players like Torres that they can go forward and sometimes forget the need to defend.

"We have a lot of good players now with that mentality. Javier has a very good mentality, he's very professional. If you don't use him, he never complains, he's always ready for the next game. He trains really hard. He's the kind of player you want as a holding midfielder. He doesn't need to score a goal, just keep the right balance for the rest of the players."

Did you notice the plug for rotation? Maybe Mascherano has not yet thrown a serious wobbly, but Benitez should try to leave him out of a really important match and see how philosophical he remains.

In the unlikely case of the Argentine not complaining, be sure the Kop will. This was the extent of his influence on a game which flickered into authentic competition only when Nwankwo Kanu, still a man who can muster rare and subtle skills, came on in the second half and immediately injected the idea that for Pompey all was not lost. Kanu picked out Benjani Mwaruwari quite beautifully and for a little while Harry Redknapp's team slipped out of their bondage.

It was just for so long, though, as Torres and Mascherano reassessed the state of the game. When they did that, Anfield enjoyed for a little while the certainty of knowing what was going to happen.

For Redknapp, who reported without even a hint of offering an excuse that his players had been unable to train for two days because of a frozen pitch, the challenge will be to fight off the possibility of demoralisation provoked by this defeat and get by with just 14 outfield players when the African nations make their claims on the likes of Kanu, Mwaruwari and the powerful Papa Bouba Diop.

At least he will not have to worry about burglars, from wherever they come, back streets or corporate offices.

Goals: Benayoun (13) 1-0; Distin og (16) 2-0; Mwaruwari (57) 2-1; Torres (67) 3-1; Torres (85) 4-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2) Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Benayoun (Babel, 64), Mascherano, Gerrard, Kewell (Aurelio, 76); Torres (Lucas, 86), Kuyt. Substitutes not used : Itandje (gk), Voronin.

Portsmouth (4-5-1): James; Johnson (Lauren, 46), Campbell, Distin, Hreidarsson; Utaka (Kanu, 46), Muntari (Taylor, 73), Diop, Mendes, Kranjcar; Mwaruwari. Substitutes not used: Begovic (gk), Nugent.

Referee: M Riley (Yorkshire)

Booked: Liverpool Arbeola; Portsmouth Diop, Hreidarsson.

Man of the match: Torres.

Attendance: 43,071.

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