If Rafael Benitez was to imagine his ideal vision for Liverpool, his team would play like this every week, including Saturday at Old Trafford where they would beat Manchester United and throw the whole Premier League title race wide open again. To paraphrase one famous Liverpudlian: you may say that he is a dreamer but, after last night's performance, he is not the only one.
This was Liverpool playing like European royalty, delivering a four-goal cuffing to Real Madrid, their biggest defeat ever in the Champions League. This was European football's most successful club humiliated, eliminated, eviscerated. A rout led by goals from the excellent Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard that takes Liverpool into the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the fourth time in five seasons.
Can they do it again come 12.45pm on Saturday at Old Trafford? On a rapturous European night at Anfield, when Benitez's team were brilliant, it felt almost indecent to ask the question. They are a great European side but are they sufficiently great to win the Premier League? To watch them tear into the white shirts last night, you could be forgiven for thinking that this meant so much more than those home league games against Fulham, Hull, and Stoke.
Liverpool's first two goals, for Torres and then Gerrard's penalty, benefited from dubious refereeing decisions from the Belgian official Frank De Bleeckere but there can be no argument that this victory was undeserved. Even Juande Ramos did not try to frame one, not with a Real team that posed less threat than Sunderland did here eight days' hence. Cristiano Ronaldo be warned: at this rate he may end up talking himself into a move to Spanish football's equivalent of Blackburn Rovers.
For Real, last night was when all their vanity, their haphazard acquisitions policy and their chaotic sequence of managers came back to haunt them. That was in direct contrast to the meticulous planning of Benitez who, in spite of his politicking and plotting, still has the edge on nights such as these. So much so that by the end he had substituted Gerrard, scorer of two, and Torres and given a run-out to Jay Spearing, a 20-year-old academy product who many feel has never got his opportunity at Liverpool.
That gesture, rewarded with a feisty cameo by Spearing, almost looked sentimental on Benitez's part and sentimentality is the last instinct you would associate with the Liverpool manager. His team reduced Real to dust and the away fans sang the name of their tormentors in homage. How easy was it? Even Andrea Dossena scored.
The Italian left-back, until now almost entirely average considering the £7m lavished on him, scored the fourth for Liverpool. Torres's left ankle was strapped and iced come the end of the game although you imagine he will have to play against United on Saturday and if he does so with the fire in his belly that drove him on last night then Liverpool will have a chance of reducing the gap at the top of the League to four points.
At Atletico Madrid, Torres had only scored one goal in nine meetings with Real and never been on the winning side. From the very beginning he was on a mission to put that right. In the fourth minute, he flicked the ball with his heel, spun 180 degrees away from Fabio Cannavaro and hit his shot at Iker Casillas. The Italian was left stranded and from that moment on never really regained his bearings.
To their credit, Benitez's team were not primed to defend their one away-goal lead and they took the game to Real. Casillas saved a dipping volley from Javier Mascherano a minute later. Torres ran 30 yards to steal the ball off Sergio Ramos's toe. The visitors were all over the place.
On 16 minutes, Cannavaro missed a clearance from Jamie Carragher and, as Torres chased the ball, he put a hand on the shoulder of the defender Pepe who went to ground. Torres passed the ball out wide to Dirk Kuyt who cut it back for the striker to score. The son of Atletico went straight to the Real fans at the Anfield Road end, his back towards them, pointing at his name. This one was personal. Even with his complaints about Torres's role in the build-up, Pepe looked vulnerable. The penalty was a closer call, Gabriel Heinze was adjudged to have handled the ball for the penalty that was Liverpool's second goal. Although it struck his shoulder, Heinze did seem to move his arm towards the ball. The former Manchester United player went berserk in his protest, getting himself booked along the way.
Gerrard blasted home and Liverpool looked unassailable. Raul Gonzalez was no threat at all. Arjen Robben had disappeared and was substituted at half-time – unsurprisingly complaining of an injury. Lassana Diarra was powerless in the red stampede. Real conceded within a minute of the second half starting.
This time Ryan Babel got a cross in from the right and Gerrard was allowed to run unchecked to thump it in from 10 yards. Real came back into the game until the 89th minute Mascherano's ball found Dossena in space for the fourth goal. It was another triumph for Benitez, this one over the club that made him in his early days as a coach. You wonder if on a night like these perhaps even he can put aside his gripes about the way the club is run, its inefficiencies and shortcomings, and enjoy the moment.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Aurelio; Alonso (Lucas, 59), Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard (Spearing, 73), Babel; F Torres (Dossena, 83). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Hyypia, Ngog, Kelly.
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Casillas; Ramos, Pepe, Cannavaro (Van der Vaart, 64), Heinze; Diarra, Gago (Guti, 76); Robben (Marcelo, h-t), Sneijder, Higuain; Raul. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Saviola, Metzelder, M Torres.
Referee: F De Bleeckere (Belgium).
Real's defeat was their worst in Europe's premier club competition since they were beaten 5-0 by Milan 20 years ago.
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