Monday, December 3, 2007

Liverpool 4 Porto 1: Torres displays striker's instinct to prolong Liverpool's European life

Rafael Benitez made an impromptu speech last night in praise of the fans who sang his name at Anfield and marched through the streets in support of him before the game, but he will know in his heart who really served up the rescue act last night. Chants and protests are all very nice but nothing counted quite as much as the two goals scored by Fernando Torres.
Into the last game of the Champions League group stage and Liverpool have to beat Marseilles in the Stade Velodrome on 11 December for a place in the knockout round. No small task, but when you compare it to the tumult of the last week the basics of winning football matches will be a welcome departure from the politics of Benitez's feud with his club's American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett. A feud the Spanish coach was still trying desperately to defuse last night.
First the football: three goals in 12 minutes turned a game heading nowhere featuring a team facing Champions League oblivion into a match worthy of Anfield's European pantheon. At 1-1, Liverpool were heading out of the competition, but Torres' brilliant second goal of the match and a flourish from Steven Gerrard and Peter Crouch gave this game a scoreline that scarcely reflected the full scope of the match. All three came after the introduction of Crouch, who is saving the skin of a manager who can hardly bring himself to pick the Englishman.
Then the politics: Benitez has been backtracking for two days straight over his fall-out with the Americans so last night he made sure there was no mistake. Having first said he wanted to thank the fans "because as always they were magnificent" he went on to placate the bosses. When it came to the owners it was, Benitez said, "nothing personal". "We were talking about the future of the club and some issues," he said. "I don't have any personal problems. I was not angry, I was just surprised a little."
Surprised at what? He was, Benitez said, just acting in the best interests of the club. "I have read things about my ego, it's not my ego, it's my responsibility," he said. "I take care of the team and the squad because I want to do it. It would be easier for me to say nothing and just take my wages but I prefer to be involved and I think they understand. I don't have any problems with them and we all want the best for the club."
It was wise not to make too much of the supporters fulsome backing of their manager for fear of taking sides against Hicks and Gillett although Benitez happily milked the adulation for most of the game. Up on his feet in the coaching area, he affected a kind of nonchalance that was fooling nobody – the sentiments of the Kop evidently meant a great deal to him. "Rafa's going nowhere," trilled the Liverpool fans at the end, although for long periods in between nothing was quite as clear cut.
This was not a convincing Liverpool performance until Crouch and Harry Kewell came on in the later stages to change the course of the game. Any one of Group A's four teams can still qualify after Besiktas beat Marseilles last night, and having hauled themselves back from the brink it would be crushing for Liverpool to throw it away now, although there was much to suggest in this performance that they might just do that.
Andriy Voronin, Yossi Benayoun and Ryan Babel were all dreadfully off the pace and until Torres scored the first goal on 19 minutes it was fair to say that the most exciting moment thus far had been whether Roy Keane would shake the hand of Carlos Queiroz when he found himself two seats away from the Manchester United assistant manager (he did). In the Anfield Road end someone held up a banner that said Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry was "a wolf in sheep's clothing". That disappeared as quickly as it came.
Whether in sheep's clothing or just a sheepskin jacket, Parry will not have been too discomfited by such a low-level protest. The Benitez chants started again when Torres broke the deadlock from a corner won by Steve Finnan and delivered by Gerrard. The Spanish striker was virtually unmarked when he headed down and past the Porto goalkeeper Helton.
It was not to last. On 36 minutes the winger Przemyslaw Kazmierczak crossed from the left and Lisandro Lopez found himself in enough space to cleverly direct his header back across goal from the side that Jose Reina had come. Back on level terms, Lopez nearly had a second three minutes later when Lucho sprung the offside trap and the Porto striker just put his shot wide.
It all changed on 78 minutes, Kewell fed the ball into Torres who held off Jose Bosingwa in the inside-right channel and slipped the ball past Helton. And from there, Porto proceeded to collapse. The brutal centre-back Milan Stepanov handled a cross and Gerrard slipped home the penalty. As Liverpool cruised, Crouch headed in Gerrard's corner with Helton nowhere. The Kop were singing Benitez's tune again.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Arbeloa; Benayoun (Crouch, 71), Gerrard, Mascherano, Babel (Kuyt, 85); Torres, Voronin (Kewell, 63). Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Riise, Leiva, Sissoko.
Porto (4-4-1-1): Helton; Bosingwa, Stepanov, Alves, Cech; M Gonzalez (Sektioui, 77), L Gonzalez, Assuncao (Postiga, 81), Kazmierczak (Meireles, 65); Quaresma; Lopez. Substitutes not used: Nuno (gk), Emanuel, Fucile, Bolatti.
Referee: R Rosetti (Italy)
Champions League Group A

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