11 November 2007

Torres goes to finishing school as Reds teach Fulham a lesson

Spaniard's late goal rescues misfiring strikers before Gerrard penalty secures win

By Steve Tongue at Anfield (The Independent)
Liverpool should have saved some of that Turkish delight for the competition that, after 17 years without winning it, most of their supporters regard as this season's priority. There were only 10 minutes to play and frustration was rampant around Anfield when Fernando Torres, a second-half substitute, and then Steven Gerrard, with a penalty, broke down Fulham's dogged, if negative, resistance.
All that after Rafa Benitez had named an unchanged side for the first time in more than a year following the 8-0 romp over Besiktas last Tuesday. As that same XI struggled to see off a side who have not won away in their last 23 attempts, he was able to point to the importance of fresh legs and minds in justification of his normal rotation policy. Torres supplied both 10 minutes after replacing the hard-working Andriy Voronin, when he took down a long clearance from Jose Reina with a gorgeous touch, turned inside Aaron Hughes and beat Antti Niemi at his near post.
Benitez's team selections are always awaited with greater interest than most, and often greeted with greater bewilderment. But even the tinkering Spaniard could not bring himself to change the side that had achieved a record Champions' League score in midweek. It was only the second time in the last 160 matches, stretching back 20 months, that he had issued such a vote of confidence.
"If we score another eight, we'll do it again," he smiled. "After eight goals and playing so well, we had three days [rest] and that was enough. But you could see two or three players were really tired so it was a little bit risky. Fulham were playing really compact but I had confidence because we were creating chances."
Not many of them, to be frank, until Peter Crouch, who would have been more mortified than ever to have been left out, looped a header against the crossbar from Fabio Aurelio's free-kick on the stroke of half-time. Before that, Niemi had been required to make only one save when Sami Hyypia's drive sent him sprawling to his left. The same applied to Reina, whose parry from former local hero Danny Murphy after 14 minutes turned out to be his only serious work of the day.
Niemi was busier after the interval. He saved from Voronin as Crouch headed down a cross; then Murphy was rightly booked for a cynical trip on his old friend Gerrard, and Niemi beat out Aurelio's 30-yard free-kick. The next save was from Yossi Benayoun, who then set up Voronin to drag a shot beyond the far post.
Benayoun's hat-trick in midweek might have given Steve McClaren hope that the Israeli midfielder could unpick Russia's defence next Saturday and give England a sniff of a chance in their Euro 2008 qualification group, but he picked up a groin injury that makes him doubtful for international duty.
Benitez sent on Ryan Babel and Torres, and Lawrie Sanchez's worst fears were confirmed as his team conceded late goals again. "They introduced a bit of talent and Torres did what he does," Fulham's manager said. "There should be a transfer cap on the amount you're allowed to introduce from the bench," he added, in a dry acknowledgment of the sort of financial gulf between the clubs, for all Mohamed Al Fayed's backing.
Torres' goal was a rare moment of Harrods quality. The penalty was all a bit corner-shop, Carlos Bocanegra tripping Crouch just outside the area before Gerrard ensured that celebrations could begin at last. The win – only Liverpool's second at home in the Premier League – takes them into fourth place, at least until Chelsea play Everton.
Expect plenty more changes after the international break when Benitez faces two games in most weeks until well into the new year, including the ones against Porto and Marseilles that will decide if his team progress in the Champions' League. Fulham, four points above the cold winter waters of relegation, must clearly continue to rely on the occasional home victory for salvation.

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