Terrific Torres proves his worth

STEVEN GERRARD had a point when pondering the criticism that had been directed Fernando Torres’s way before the Spaniard’s devastating performance at Upton Park.

“He’s been playing okay to me,” shrugged the England midfielder, reflecting on the fact that Torres had still managed to score three goals in five league games before Saturday’s brace that moved Liverpool back into the mainstream of the title race.

Torres may have been playing ‘okay’, but against West Ham he performed at a significantly higher level and underlined why, together with Gerrard, he is absolutely crucial to the Merseysiders hopes of finally ending a 19-year wait for the championship, particularly as Liverpool’s defence appears have suddenly sprung leaks.

The Spain international’s sluggish start to the season was put down to a hectic summer at the Confederations Cup and, having welcomed his star striker back to pre-season training 19 days after the rest of his squad, Rafael Benitez has been anxious to ease Torres back to full fitness and minimise the risk of damaging his fragile hamstrings.

The plan appears to have worked, with the forward appearing at times unstoppable Saturday, never more so than when he powered past West Ham defender James Tomkins and fired a fierce shot into the roof of Rob Green’s net to give Liverpool a 20th minute lead. “When he is on top of his game, he is the best striker in the world,” conceded Tomkins. “As a defender you know that and being young myself, I don’t think it gets any tougher than that. When he is on his game, he is unstoppable.”

The second goal – in the 75th minute to finally clinch a victory after the home side had twice equalised – was a more routine header that owed much to Ryan Babel’s excellent cross although that in itself demonstrated how hard Torres has worked to make himself more effective in the air in the two years since he came to England.

And it is that willingness to learn, together with his seemingly unquenchable appetite for hard work, that has convinced his manager there is much more to come from the forward.

“When we decided to sign Torres we knew him really well,” said Benitez. “We knew he had the qualities needed for England, someone who was young, keen to learn with the right mentality. So Torres was the perfect answer because he wanted to come here, he wanted to improve. He can win it in the air, and if he receives good crosses, he will score goals. But clearly he has to improve on other things. But I won’t tell you what these things are!”

No wonder Benitez looked pleased with himself. He will also be privately pleased his own defenders have only to face Torres on the training pitch because on this evidence, the striker would have a field day against Jamie Carragher. The former England defender was repeatedly undone by Zavon Hines’ pace and Carlton Cole’s strength, bringing down Hines in the 30th minute to allow Alessandro Diamanti to score from the penalty spot. He was also caught out when Cole headed West Ham level on the stroke of half-time, three minutes after Dirk Kuyt had restored Liverpool’s lead.

Benitez’s response was cute: “If we cannot (cut out individual mistakes) then I will say to Torres he has to score more goals,” he said. But smart soundbites don’t win titles and the manager will face some tough decisions about his best back four in the coming months.

For Gianfranco Zola, this game showed both how far his team have come in the year since he took charge and how far they have still to go. Injuries haven’t been kind to the West Ham manager and his last minute signings have still to find their feet. Hines’ performance, though, came as a genuine bonus, confirming that the steady supply of young talent from the club’s academy shows no sign of drying up.

“Hines has done very well today,” Zola said. “The boy is making himself more and more important for the team, and that’s what it’s all about.’’

- Man of the Match: Fernando Torres (Liverpool) The Premier League is blessed with a number of world class strikers but if Torres can continue in this vain, the debate about who is the best will be quickly settled.

- Referee: Andre Marriner. Got the big decisions right and Liverpool can have no complaints about West Ham’s penalty.

- Match rating: ****


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