White shirts more like white flags


Richard Will iamson a night of vindication for Rafael Benitez as the aristocrats of Real Madrid are overrun

REAL MADRID are not accustomed to enduring an opening to a match as devastating as the one Liverpool inflicted on them last night. As the red shirts swarmed through, around and over their opponents, never can the famous all-white strip, worn by the heirs to men who won the European Cup on a record nine occasions, have so closely resembled a flag of surrender.

Criticised by his home country’s newspapers for the manner of Liverpool’s 1-0 win in the first leg in the Bernabeu a fortnight ago, Rafael Benitez responded this week by telling the English press he did not feel he had received enough credit for the club’s achievements in Europe since he assumed control at Anfield.

Achievement, however, is always a matter of perception. Liverpool’s faithful adore their Spanish manager for masterminding the comeback in Istanbul four years ago and for displays such as the one his players produced at Stamford Bridge in October, when they gave everything in putting an end to Chelsea’s 86-game unbeaten home league record – beyond doubt the performance of the season to date.

Neutrals have been less ready to give their unstinted approval to a manager who sometimes seems reluctant to allow his players to express themselves, and whose strategy and tactics seem designed for European competition rather than the equally urgent matter of winning Liverpool’s first domestic league title in almost two decades.

Last night, however, his players tore into the opposition as though they had a three-goal deficit to make up rather than a one-goal advantage to protect. Poor Real. Only three days after their local rivals stretched them on the rack in front of their own supporters at the Bernabeu, they must have felt as though they were once again facing the horde of Atletico’s attackers in the Madrid derby.

Liverpool were living up to the best of their own history, with the speed of the 21st century player and the subtle touches of the imports from continental Europe added to a directness evoking the days of St John and Callaghan, of Keegan and McDermott, of Dalglish and Whelan.

When Torres skimmed like a pebble on a lake across the face of the Madrid penalty area in the first minute, slipping the ball past three defenders as he went from right to left before Lassana Diarra raced back in desperation to belt the ball out for a throw-in, he was announcing the tenor of Liverpool’s approach to the match. Before the first five minutes were up Steven Gerrard had fed Torres from the left and the striker backheeled the ball past Pepe before unleashing an effort that drew the first of several demonstrations of the famous shot-stopping ability with which Iker Casillas preserved victory for his side in the 2002 final at Hampden Park, when he came on as a late substitute to make saves every bit as decisive as Zinedine Zidane’s legendary volleyed goal.

Moments later, when he leapt to turn Javier Mascherano’s 30-yard volley over the bar.

The red assault came in wave after wave and never faltered, given its foundation by Mascherano’s superb anticipation and unflagging commitment at the base of midfield. By the time Torres struck Liverpool’s opening goal in the 16th minute, the visitors’ rearguard was in tatters.

Benitez did not need the stroke of fortune that enabled his side to put the tie to bed in the 28th minute. When Alvaro Arbeloa jumped to make an interception just inside the Liverpool penalty area, the ball travelled barely a couple of yards from his chest to Gabriel Heinze’s shoulder. Even had it hit the Argentinian full-back on the arm, it would not have justified the award of a penalty since he had no time to take avoiding action. But the referee’s assistant thought otherwise and Gerrard’s spot-kick gave Casillas no chance.

With one raking move after another, Liverpool teased their opponents to distraction. Two minutes into the second half Gerrard met Babel’s cut-back on the bounce with an improvised volley of unanswerable brusqueness, sealing a victory that confirms Benitez’s reputation as a master of European competition.