Sport Soccer

Monday 21 August 2017

Torres on double as Reds walk on

Spanish ace shows artistry to send Liverpool storming into last-four

NOW that's playing with the hand-brake off. Now that's how to attack and entertain. Liverpool produced a performance of sustained vibrancy, spiced with magnificent goals, including two more from the artistic collection of Fernando Torres to reach the semi-finals of the Europa League last night.

When Liverpool play with as much belief, commitment and adventure as this it makes their travails in the Premier League so difficult to comprehend.

Liverpool could finish outside the Champions League places yet with a European trophy. Bizarre.

Benfica are a good side, blessed with talent in players like Angel di Maria and David Luiz, but they were swept aside by Rafa Benitez's fired up side.

Dirk Kuyt's header put Liverpool on the way, Lucas then knocked in a deserved goal but it was Torres' double, either side of Oscar Cordoza's free-kick, that seized the imagination.

The Spaniard had been quiet in the first half, even hobbling at one point after withstanding some hefty challenges, but he was magnificent after the break, helped by some outstanding use of the advantage rule by Bjorn Kuipers, the Dutch referee.

Thrilling

Kuipers added to a night of thrilling football, of outstanding displays from the likes of Lucas and Torres.

The usual Anfield cocktail of protests and passion spiced the night. Yet Liverpool, willed on by the Kop, who were particularly vocal in their support of Benitez, were soon in their stride, building confidently, their high tempo bringing a two-goal lead, enhanced by Torres' clinical finish of a magnificent breakaway after the interval.

Not until Cardoza's 70th-minute free-kick flew past Pepe Reina did Benfica show real attacking threat on a hugely dramatic night.

Until then, Liverpool seemed to have found their belief, defending with determination and intelligence and attacking with pace and precision.

Benfica were blown away in the first hour, their initially vocal fans stunned into silence by the red waves crashing on to their creaking defence. Lucas enjoyed one of his best performances in midfield, while Kuyt must have covered every inch of Anfield's fine pitch.

The Dutchman ensured the evening started brightly, heading Liverpool ahead on the night, level on aggregate but with the benefit of that precious away goal. When Steven Gerrard curled in a left-wing corner, Kuyt twisted his body to beat Benfica's keeper, Julio Cesar, to the ball. Cesar was furious, screaming (erroneously) that Kuyt had been leaning into him.

The linesman raised his flag, causing utter confusion, prompting Kuipers, to check with the additional assistant over what the perceived offence was. When it was suggested that Kuyt was offside, Kuipers rightly dismissed this as impossible under the laws and gave the goal.

Benitez, understandably, had been close to meltdown in the technical area and was at last able to relax. Michel Platini's experiment with extra officials in the Europa League will be doomed to failure if those officials do not all know the rules. Fortunately, Kuipers did.

One swiftly became two, Benfica having no answer to the alacrity of Liverpool's movement. After Javier Mascherano nicked the ball, Yossi Benayoun turned and darted upfield, soon releasing Gerrard. The captain, turning to face goal, teased a superb pass behind Benfica's defence for Lucas to run on to.

The Brazilian raced on and the keeper came out but Lucas had come to bury Cesar, and cruised around him, flicking the ball into the empty net with the outside of his right foot. It was Lucas' fifth goal for Liverpool, adding to efforts against Havant and Waterlooville, Crewe Alexandra, Chelsea and Newcastle.

Just as Lucas merited his goal, so did Liverpool deserve their half-time lead as Benfica's threat had only flickered before the break.

There were touches of class from Di Maria, the exciting Argentine left-winger who was being watched by Frank Arnesen, Chelsea's sporting director. Luiz, the Brazilian defender, was an occasional delight down with his skilful surges down the left. However, little was seen of Cardoza's class until midway through the second half.

Benfica had quickly revealed a physical streak, Sidnei going through the back of Torres, Ruben Amorim catching Benayoun and Carlos Martins flattening Mascherano. But nothing could halt Liverpool for an hour, the hosts adding to their lead after the break in fabulous fashion.

Here was Liverpool at their fast-moving best, the ball flowing from the lively Benayoun to the tireless Kuyt who charged down the right before delivering a low, hard cross into the area where Torres supplied the coup de grace.

The Kop has witnessed some great goals down the years and this was up with the very best. If the volume could have risen any higher, it somehow did, the fans getting passionately behind the team and singing their support for Benitez.

But then the nerves began to jangle when Cardoza drilled in that free-kick through a flimsy wall.

Benfica pressed and pressed, Cardoza almost scoring with another free-kick that fortunately clipped Torres and dropped away for a corner.

Benfica then suffered a blow, Cesar going down injured and hobbling away to be replaced by Moreira.

The replacement keeper was soon picking the ball out of the back of his net much to the delight of the Kop. After Luiz had followed through dangerously on Lucas, Kuipers played advantage, having spotted that possession had fallen to Gerrard who immediately released Mascherano.

Soon the ball was with Torres, the Spaniard raiding down the inside-right channel and lifting the ball expertly over Moreira.

Torres was then removed by Benitez and, unlike at St Andrew's last weekend, nobody was going to argue with that substitution. Liverpool march on. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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