Fernando Torres (Liverpool)
Reina 5, Finnan 6, Arbeloa 6, Hyypia 6, Aurelio 6 Mascherano 8, Lucas 6, Gerrard 7, Babel 8 (Benayoun, 62min), Kuyt 7 (Riise, 73min), Torres 9 (Crouch, 90min)
Schwarzer 5, Young 6, Wheater 5, Pogatetz 6, Grounds 6, O'Neil 6 (Mido, 59min), Rochemback 6, Arca 5, Downing 7, Tuncay 6 (Alves, 69min), Aliadiere 5
Reviewed by John Aizlewood for The Sunday Times
Liverpool v Middlesbrough
Liverpool 3 Middlesbrough 2
Fernando Torres on song with hat-trick
So, which Liverpool would we see yesterday? The lambs slaughtered by Barnsley or the lions who conquered Inter Milan? In the event, we saw aspects of both, but most tellingly, we saw a bravura display of the striking art from Fernando Torres, whose hat-trick sent Middlesbrough back to Teesside without the point they warranted.
"We're very, very down," admitted visiting Boro manager Gareth Southgate. "But this is the time to put our arms around the players who are blaming themselves. We gave Liverpool a hell of a game, we've given a fantastic account of ourselves and after the really tough times we've had this season, being so down is an indication of how far we've come."
Yesterday belonged to Torres, but it may also mark another watershed: Rafael Benitez's understanding that the time for stubbornness is over. Mindful of the simmering lack of enthusiasm accorded to his rotation policy, by fans, by his players and by those who make Anfield's major personnel decisions, only Jamie Carragher's suspension prevented him from naming an unchanged starting XI, just four days after the epic Inter epictussle. "After Inter, the important thing was to win today," explained Benitez. "Everything is possible now."
Middlesbrough travelled south unbeaten since New Year's Day, boosted by the return of Tuncay Sanli, who enhanced their buoyant spirit after just eight minutes with Boro's first Anfield goal since Phil Stamp in 1999, after Ryan Babel's needless handball gifted them a free kick. Stewart Downing whipped it in from the right and Sami Hyypia and Steve Finnan played three strikers onside in the six-yards box. Even then, Tuncay's header was hardly unstoppable, but Jose Reina stuck out an ineffectual paw and helped it along.
Liverpool were slow to rally, but what good work they fashioned had the effervescent Babel as its fulcrum. After 19 minutes he danced around challenges from Luke Young and Fabio Rochemback and crossed. Dirk Kuyt's magical first touch took out both David Wheater and Emanuel Pogatetz. Alas for his brittle confidence, King Midas in reverse turned gold into dust as the Dutchman blasted wildly over from seven yards.
Then, as Liverpool began to sense this might not be their afternoon, enter Torres. Remarkably, before half an hour had passed, Liverpool were ahead.
First, Reina's long clearance was headed on by Hyypia to Middlesbrough captain Julio Arca, who unfathomably and weakly nodded the ball back towards his own goal. Whether Arca's intervention was aimed at Mark Schwarzer was a moot point, but it loped limply over Rochemback to Torres, who strode through a startled defence, drew Schwarzer and finished expertly into an empty net as he fell.
A minute later and it was two for Torres and two for Liverpool. Hyypia lumped the ball forwards, Babel and Fabio Aurelio linked neatly, before finding Torres, who cut in and, as Pogatetz backed off, launched an unstoppable howitzer into the bottom corner.
Anfield's mood lightened, but moments before the break Tuncay fashioned a glorious chance that Gary O'Neil scuffed as the home defence went into their trademark panic whenever a forward had the nous and the legs to run at them.
It was a warning Liverpool heeded. Steven Gerrard was imperious in the centre of midfield; Javier Mascherano protected his defence as keenly as the feistiest of guard dogs and while Kuyt's rarely looked like scoring, his unselfish foraging and fiercely intelligent off-the-ball running ensured he looked like an ideal foil for the coiled cobra that was Torres.
Undone by a combination of Arca's moment of madness and Torres's moment of genius, Middlesbrough were woefully short of penetration, but not of hope, though that faded just after the hour when Torres had completed his hat-trick.
Kuyt's crafty ball forwards found Schwarzer charging out of his goal to the edge of the penalty area, where Wheater could be found dithering. Torres nipped in between them and lofted a handsome third into another empty net.
That should have been that but there was still time for the always dangerous Downing to slalom past Yossi Benayoun and roll the ball through Reina's legs for hollow consolation. Aliadiere's late dismissal after the mildest of scuffles with Mascherano merely added to the visitors' sense of what might have been.