Torres gets Benitez off hook with late strike

Aston Villa 0 Liverpool 1

Fernando Torres shook his head when the final whistle sounded at Villa Park last night and muttered some words of Spanish under his breath. Even by the 25-year-old striker's standards, his match-winning goal, side-footed home in the fourth minute of second-half injury time, was an astonishing illustration of his ability to alter the rhythms and outcomes of games in which he plays a minimal part.

It matters little today that Torres looked out of sorts and out of spirits in a game which was a winter wonderland in climate alone. He has reached 50 league goals in 72 matches, eight games faster than anyone in Liverpool's history, and few of that half-century may be judged more crucial when history comes to judge his manager.

Before he stepped through the scurries of snow to seize a ball which was slid into his path and placed it through the slush into the net, Rafael Benitez's side were slithering out of sight of the top four. Now they are four points behind Tottenham, visitors to Anfield on Sunday week, and have some faith restored in their ability to beat the sides they must overcome. This was only their second win against teams in the top half of the table this season.

So what was Torres muttering? Something along the lines of "when will anyone else chip in?" perhaps. Benitez threw in some sarcasm last night when the question of the forward's importance to Liverpool's season cropped up again – "I was interested that an expert said the other day that to save Liverpool Torres and Gerrard have to be scoring goals," he said – but no-one but the Spaniard currently looks capable of driving Liverpool on.

They dominated extended periods of play and kept possession well but the final ball was missing and not until Torres seized his moment did they look like creating something in the final third. In the Aston Villa goal, Brad Friedel's only serious exertion came when Steven Gerrard, spotting him fractionally off his line, clipped a 30-yard shot with his instep which the American touched over the bar. Benitez does not speak with much certainty about the prospect of Torres being fully fit until the end of the campaign. "Hopefully," he said. But it seems to be the factor on which things will turn for some time.

The course of the game could have been altered earlier had Dirk Kuyt been awarded a penalty – as he certainly should – after Richard Dunne lunged into the first-half challenge which upended him. But Liverpool are the ones who cannot defend. The ghost of zonal marking always stalks them and it popped up to haunt them again after half an hour. When James Milner swung over a corner from the left, Dirk Kuyt and Emiliano Insua lurched towards the same player – Dunne – while Stewart Downing, Kuyt's man, waited free to volley behind them. Pepe Reina launched into a fine one-handed save and then into the inquest with Kuyt.

Reina was called on again after a lofted ball from Stilian Petrov down the left hand channel set Gabriel Agbonlahor up against Jamie Carragher – a one-horse race if ever there was one – and it might have been worse had Agbonlahor not delivered with his weaker left foot. "There were some mistakes. We had problems with set-pieces," Benitez admitted.

Martin O'Neill, his Villa counterpart, was inconsolable and unilaterally ended his own press conference soon after being asked to comment on how good Torres is. "Not tonight," he said to that. "If you don't mind I'll just talk about my team tonight. He's a very good player but the ball fell to him very kindly."

That was not the full story, since Liverpool were the side who showed the ambition. They deserved the points on the balance of play. The goal certainly seemed fated to arrive. An error from Stephen Warnock allowed Kuyt to pick up the ball on Liverpool's right, Dunne slipped in the slush as he went to challenge and Agbonlahor, tackling Yossi Benayoun when the ball reached, managed only to slide the ball into Torres' path. Villa Park held its breath and the history man pounced.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Cuellar, Dunne, Warnock; Reo-Coker (Albrighton, 72), Milner, Petrov, Downing (Sidwell, 80); Agbonlahor, Carew. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Delfouneso, Delph, Beye, Collins.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson (Skrtel, 89), Carragher, Agger, Insua; Lucas, Aquilani (Babel, 77); Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun (Aurelio, 90); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Spearing.

Referee: L Probert (Gloucestershire).

Booked: Aston Villa Dunne; Liverpool Lucas.

Man of the match: Torres.

Attendance: 42,788.