Torres on double to keep the Reds ship on course
FAR from a sinking ship, the ferry across the Mersey showed no sign of being holed below the waterline whatever Albert 'Dock' Riera might think. It was never plain sailing but two goals from Fernando Torres and one from Steven Gerrard allowed Liverpool to steam into the quarter-finals of the Europa League last night.
Following his intemperate outburst on life under Rafa Benitez, Riera might not have a future at Liverpool, barring a Kopite keelhauling, but Liverpool certainly have a future in the Europa League. They are deservedly in today's draw courtesy of well-taken goals by their usual powerhouses and a dynamic midfield display from a slightly unlikely source, Lucas.
The Brazilian excelled, proving a far more adventurous force than normal, embodying Liverpool's hunger to stay in this competition.
News of momentous events at the Cottage had been announced over the Tannoy before kick-off, drawing an ovation from the Kop, and generating further belief in overturning a first-leg deficit.
The faith of Liverpool's fans was reflected in the players' brisk movement during the warm-up; there was a real intensity to their practice that was maintained with a high-tempo start, which brought Gerrard's ninth-minute penalty and continued with Torres' fine finish shortly into the second half.
For Liverpool's first, Lucas won the kick, showing skill and pace to drag the ball away from Yohan Cabaye and racing into the Lille area. As Adil Rami unfurled a leg, Lucas accepted the invitation, ensured contact was made and went crashing to the floor.
After consulting his additional assistant referee, Nicola Rizzoli pointed to the spot. Gerrard made no mistake, sending Mickael Landreau the wrong way.
An early goal was exactly what Benitez had ordered to settle any nerves. Anfield was quick to show its appreciation for Benitez, whose pre-match preparations had been complicated by Riera's ill-timed outburst. No dissent could be found in the body language of Benitez's players, who looked utterly focused on turning their manager's game-plan into reality.
Benitez's captain, Gerrard, was certainly in the mood, storming into a challenge on Aurelien Chedjou that was 60-40 against the Englishman. The spinning ball was swiftly seized on by Torres, who almost conjured up a magnificent second. Running at Emerson Conceicao, Torres nutmegged Lille's left-back in a wonderful movement missing only a large shout of "Ole''. As Chedjou then dived in, Torres let fly, his shot angling just wide.
Liverpool were now playing with all the confidence they have lacked for long spells this season, moving the ball with the accuracy and assertiveness.
Even with assorted absentees, Maxi Rodriguez (ineligible), Alberto Aquilani (under the weather) and Riera (out in the cold), Liverpool were fluid and forceful.
Benitez' players had known how much this meant, how the Europa League was their one shot at glory. They had also known that footballing royalty was in the house, Diego Maradona causing a wave of excitement as he took his seat in the directors' box.
In front of the Hand of God, Liverpool had the upper hand, almost adding a second on the half-hour. After the live wire Torres won a corner, Gerrard swerved the ball over. Daniel Agger, timing his arrival and rising well, flicked a header goalwards which Landreau eventually claimed. Dirk Kuyt then invited Lucas to run at Lille's defence again. The Brazilian, a positive influence throughout, forced Landreau into a low save.
Yet there is class in this Lille side, a greater confidence patently evident in French teams this season. Rudi Garcia's side soon began responding to the exhortations of their 2,500 fans. Florent Balmont started dribbling and passing from the deep, often switching play. Eden Hazard almost struck a valuable away goal shortly before the break, darting through the middle, his shot hitting Pepe Reina and diverting over. Anfield sighed in relief.
Resisting this flurry of threat from Lille, Liverpool urgently sought a second. One strong Gerrard charge was ended by Rio Mavubu, whose father played for Zaire in the 1974 World Cup against the watching Kenny Dalglish. Mavubu's usual anchoring shift had the additional responsibility of shadowing Gerrard, an onerous assignment as the England midfielder kept raiding forward in support of Torres.
Kuyt was also in constructive mood, lifting over a cross from the right. Leaping high above a sea of white shirts was Torres, who seemed to hang in the air as the ball came over. The Spaniard met the ball well enough, sending it back across Landreau in textbook fashion but it glided just over.
Torres' disappointment was not to last long. Three minutes after the restart, Ryan Babel drilled a long ball forward and it should have been meat, drink and petit fours for Rami. Lille's centre-half made a dog's dinner of it, letting the ball bounce over him, gifting Torres possession.
Liverpool's No 9 accelerated towards goal, checking momentarily to deceive Chedjou, and then beating Landreau with the most confident of finishes, the ball placed expertly past the Lille goalkeeper.
There were some nervous moments still to negotiate. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang wasted a good chance after 73 minutes. The Kop grew anxious, chanting "attack, attack, attack''. Torres then embarked on a lengthy run that climaxed with Insua chipping the ball over Landreau's goal.
Yet still the atmosphere creaked with anxiety as one goal for the Frenchman would send the Anfield ship steering towards the European rocks. But as the clock ticked into injury time Torres pounced inside the box to gleefully put Liverpool into the next round and leave the good ship Liverpool into safe European waters. (© Daily Telegraph, London)