29 November 2007

Take that to the bank: lethal Fernando Torres shows value for money

Liverpool 4 FC Porto 1
Martin Samuel, Chief Football Correspondent (The Times)

Memo to Messrs Hicks and Gillett:
That, gentlemen, is what you pay the money for.


With little more than ten minutes remaining and qualification for the part of the Champions League that matters hanging by a strand, Fernando Torres, the most expensive Barclays Premier League signing of the season, scored the goal that sends Liverpool and their manager, Rafael BenÍtez, to Marseilles next month very much alive and kicking. As he did so, he offered a timely reminder.
What separates the great from the good these days are the deep pockets of football club owners and the ability to entrust the contents to a man with a plan. Liverpool have such a man in BenÍtez; and if Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr are prepared to reconcile and get behind him, anything is possible.
This was a match billed as BenÍtez’s last stand. The price of failure, it was said, would be high. Either BenÍtez was finished or he would be a dead man walking, like José Mourinho at Chelsea once Roman Abramovich’s gaze wandered. As it was, he departed in a stronger position than ever. A show of strength from the supporters demonstrated that, while the new owners may forget that fifth European Cup win in a hurry, those who number their dedication to Liverpool in years, not weeks, would not. More to the point, this was a victory that underlined the worth of investment along with another hoary football adage: the one about getting what you pay for.
BenÍtez got Torres for roughly £21.5 million and that is a lot. If the club win their first Premier League title, lift this trophy for a sixth time, or even make the lucrative trip to Moscow in May, who is counting, though? The scoreline might make it look as if it did not take a special player to defeat FC Porto, but do not believe a word of it.
At the point when Torres got Liverpool’s noses in front again, a crisis was unfolding. The scores were level at Anfield and, across Europe, in Istanbul, where Marseilles were holding Besiktas. One more goal from the French side and Liverpool would have been out. Instead, it was Torres who showed his mettle with a coolly taken goal to set up an impressive victory and Marseilles who blinked by losing to a team who conceded eight at Anfield on their previous Champions League outing.
Liverpool must still win when they travel south for the final group game on December 11, but the most slender margin will now be enough. It is the sort of set-piece European affair in which BenÍtez specialises; ask Mourinho, his former sparring partner.
That the decisive goal was scored by Torres is appropriate. BenÍtez believes that his bosses do not understand the transfer market, so an asset-saving goal from an expensive acquisition was not amiss.
It was beautifully taken, too, with the type of clarity that comes only with the exchange of large sums of money. Harry Kewell, on as a substitute, slipped the ball through and, with a deft movement, Torres took Milan Stepanov and José Bosingwa out of the game, before finishing smartly past Helton.
Stepanov was so badly affected that he inexplicably attempted to catch the ball in his penalty area four minutes later, and Steven Gerrard made the game safe for Liverpool from the penalty spot, equalling Michael Owen’s record of 22 goals in Europe. When Peter Crouch had scored from a Gerrard corner with four minutes remaining, Porto’s capitulation was complete; so, too, the collapse of the argument that a manager should also be a yes-man.
BenÍtez is a winner because he thinks one step ahead. If he wants to discuss January transfer-window business now, not in one month’s time, there will be a reason, just as there was a reason that he broke the bank for Torres. BenÍtez talked up the impact of his substitutions – particularly Kewell – but the world-class striker was the real difference here, make no mistake of that.
He had already scored Liverpool’s first; an altogether simpler affair, as it always will be if opponents leave him unmarked in the penalty area at corners. Gerrard supplied the ammunition, Torres’s head did the rest.
It should then have been a simple night, except Liverpool slept and made a game of it. Perhaps it was the ease of the win over Besiktas and the suspicion that this could be another night to remember – Porto traditionally travel about as well as a bottle of the cheap stuff from their home city – perhaps it was just a peculiar set of circumstances, but, from nowhere, Porto equalised after 32 minutes.
It was a horrible goal, one that had BenÍtez even more grim-faced than usual. Ricardo Quaresma crossed – a harmless effort really, which should have been easily cut out – and, somehow, Álvaro Arbeloa contrived to get into the perfect position neither to attack the ball nor mark his man, Lisandro López. The result was that López conjured a looping header that, adding insult to injury, found José Manuel Reina in the one place in his six-yard box that rendered him powerless. The ball nestled in his net, much like a gentle snowflake.
From a position of superiority, Liverpool had thrown away their advantage and almost compounded that error by conceding a second within four minutes. Lucho González received the ball in midfield and his pass caught Liverpool’s defence in two minds, neither of which would have troubled the scorers at Mensa. López was through on goal with only Reina to beat and when he slipped the ball to his left with extreme calmness, Anfield held its breath and feared the worst. After what was a second, but felt more like an hour, the ball trickled the wrong side of the post. Wrong for Porto, that is.
Suddenly, a back four known for its resilience was exchanging anxious glances. There were howls of derision when Roberto Rosetti blew for half-time with the clocks around Anfield showing five seconds remaining, but it was probably for the best. Liverpool returned to the dressing-room, where a glaring BenÍtez no doubt got to work. It will not have been pretty catching his eye at half-time, but, like the discreet placatory call that the owners should make this weekend, it was probably for the best.

Liverpool (4-4-2): J M Reina – S Finnan, J Carragher, S Hyypia, Á Arbeloa – Y Benayoun (sub: P Crouch, 70min), J Mascherano, S Gerrard, R Babel (sub: D Kuyt, 84) – F Torres, A Voronin (sub: H Kewell, 62). Substitutes not used: CH Itandje, J A Riise, L Leiva, M Sissoko. Booked: Hyypia.
FC Porto (4-1-4-1): Helton – J Bosingwa, M Stepanov, B Alves, M Cech – P Assunção (sub: H Postiga, 80) – R Quaresma, L González, P Kazmierczak (sub: R Meireles, 64), M González (sub: T Sektioui, 76) – L López. Substitutes not used: Nuno, P Emanuel, Fucile, M Bolatti. Booked: Stepanov, Assunção, Quaresma.

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