Torres provides striking difference for Liverpool

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The Independent Football

The talk, as Manchester United travel to Liverpool tomorrow for a fixture which Sir Alex Ferguson places even above the two clubs' Old Trafford encounters for sheer intensity, will turn to Fernando Torres the young Spaniard whom the United manager gave up on after more attempts to prise him away from Atletico Madrid than he cares to remember. But when asked whether the current Liverpool side with Torres 11 goals to the good after only 17 games is the best he has known, it was significant that Ferguson preferred to talk yesterday about Ian Rush and a fateful April afternoon on Merseyside in 1992.

Rush, who had never scored against United, finally broke his duck in a 2-0 win at Anfield that day, dashing United's hopes of a first title in 25 years and enabling Leeds to take the trophy instead. "Rush was a fantastic finisher," Ferguson remembered. The memory runs far deeper than he revealed, though. It was a nadir of United's barren, titleless years; an afternoon when Liverpool fans asked for Lee Sharpe and Paul Ince's autographs and then tore them up in their faces. "Remember this day," Ferguson told his players after the game. "What has happened should tell you how much people envy you."

The United manager has a long memory, which is why, after United have won nine championships and Liverpool none in the intervening 15 years, he has still not finished grinding tomorrow's opponents down. It is now Liverpool's record number of league titles 18 to United's 16 which he wants to overhaul before he removes himself from the fray. "We've won the FA Cup more times than anyone [11] and you get a certain pride in that," Ferguson said yesterday. [But Liverpool] have won the title more times than anyone, so the chase is on."

In the same breath as Rush, Ferguson mentioned Robbie Fowler, Liverpool's last 20-goals-a-season man back in 1996. But there is no disguising his admiration for Torres, a striker in Fowler's bracket but whose overall contribution provides an extra dimension to Toxteth's finest.

Ferguson said yesterday that he tried "for years" to deal with Atletico Madrid for the striker. "We never quite managed it, either with Madrid not wanting to sell or the player [thinking] he was too young one year. Then we just lost interest a bit. Sometimes you get fed up of going back all the time."

For the Liverpool manager, Torres represents much more than a reinforcement for title hopes. The simple telephone call to the striker which Benitez needed to make to convince Torres to invest his future in Liverpool despite a counter-bid worth 6m more from Internazionale provides a stark contrast to his current relationship with Liverpool's owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, and when Benitez eventually meets the Americans he will use Torres' arrival as an example of the benefits of involving him in transfer activity. "We signed Torres because the relationship [with the Americans] was good," he said.

Benitez sees Torres' creativity as the crucial difference between victory and two recent narrow defeats against Manchester United. "Against United, we [have been] playing well, having plenty of possession and controlling the game but we didn't create too much because they have good defenders and we [have needed] to be strong in attack," Benitez said. "Now, with Torres, we have a player with pace and ability. It can be different."

This is an oversimplification. When the Rooney-Ronaldo-Tevez axis has been in operation, United have provided thrilling football and Benitez could have badly used Daniel Agger back to reinforce a central defence in which Sami Hyypia has looked too slow and even Jamie Carragher fallible.

But form, as Ferguson attested, counts for little at Anfield. "If [my players] are lambs they're dead; if they're men there's no problem," he said. With the ghosts of Anfield visits past to lay to rest, only the latter is an option.

l Sir Alex Ferguson has been banned from the touchline for two games for using abusive and/or insulting words towards referee Mark Clattenburg during the Bolton game last month.