Torres lifts Liverpool's spirits


SOCCER/Liverpool 2 Manchester Utd 0:IF EVERY game were a life-or-death moment for Liverpool, they would probably turn out to be immortal. Although they had the task of avoiding a fifth consecutive defeat in all competitions, this was really an occasion in which the pride of a great club was at stake. These are the sort of fixtures that bring out indefatigability in Rafael Benitez’s side, who have now beaten these opponents three times in a row.

The Manchester United selection, featuring two forwards and plenty of width, was meant to prey on supposed vulnerability, but Liverpool allowed few openings and Jamie Carragher was once more the intrepid defender who can extinguish danger with hair-raising challenges that narrowly avoid calamity.

Two players showed an excess of commitment. United’s Nemanja Vidic was dismissed in the 90th minute with a second yellow card for his foul on Dirk Kuyt, so suffering a third sending-off in succession against these opponents. Javier Mascherano, with a second booking shortly after, was also sent packing.

In fixtures such as this, it is virtually compulsory the referee should have a brush with controversy. United were merely 1-0 down when Alex Ferguson sent on Michael Owen against his former club. With 10 minutes left, the striker was brought down by Carragher. It could have been a straight red card for the centre-back, but the referee, Andre Marriner, settled for a caution, presumably because he had some suspicion that Owen had not been heading straight for the target.

The losers have worries that should preoccupy them much more than the official’s interpretation. Rio Ferdinand continued to be brittle. His confidence has been undermined and that leaves him looking less imposing physically as well. Exquisite as Yossi Benayoun’s through pass was in the 65th minute, Fernando Torres was untroubled as he tore past Ferdinand to crash home a drive.

United enjoyed periods in which a relative calm appeared precious by comparison with the intermittently overwrought look that Liverpool bore. However, Ferguson’s team did not devise many openings. Wayne Rooney could hardly have guessed how significant his miscalculation would prove when he misdirected a header from Antonio Valencia into the arms of Pepe Reina in the 21st minute.

Valencia clipped the bar from an angle six minutes from the end, but Liverpool were never reduced to disarray. Benitez’s line-up had the better openings, and more of them. With 19 minutes gone, for instance, Lucas Leiva robbed Paul Scholes and set up Dirk Kuyt for a miscued attempt. The oft-derided Lucas impressed to such an extent he fed through the ball from which the substitute David Ngog scored in stoppage time to confirm the win. In normal circumstances, the Brazilian is one of two defensive midfielders but here Benitez opted, more or less, for a 4-4-2 formation that let Lucas enjoy more scope as Mascherano attended to any covering.

Precautions, as it turned out, did not need to be given a high priority. United were tame for the most part. That is bound to infuriate Ferguson since he had drawn up a line-up that was expressly aggressive. The team have now been beaten for a second time in this Premier League campaign and, as in the loss at Burnley, they did not score.

Liverpool can allow themselves a few moments when their minds are occupied by no more than a glow of satisfaction. They had been in unenviable circumstances. Torres had missed the midweek loss to Lyon and Steven Gerrard had departed after 25 minutes that night. Both have been troubled by groin strains. Here, Gerrard was absent and the Spaniard was taken off before the end.

Liverpool’s air of purpose could be sensed in the early exchanges when Fabio Aurelio’s free-kick demanded an alert response from Edwin van der Sar. It is unarguable Liverpool should be gauged by their efforts over a period far longer than that of an afternoon, but Benitez should enjoy a respite after getting most calculations correct. The risk taken in picking a semi-fit Torres was rewarded best of all. It was a day when the limited options open to Benitez were a boon of sorts. He had used Ngog from the outset against Lyon and it confirmed the youngster is not ready for so prolonged exposure to a fixture of that calibre.

If Liverpool will be conscious of their restrictions, the time may be approaching when the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid is felt more acutely by United.

It is simple to retort the Portuguese did not rescue United in earlier losses to these rivals. All the same, he held the potential to excel at a higher level than the men around him. United, regardless of this loss, have made a sound start to the campaign. The task now will be to sustain it.