The return of Fernando Torres provided the spark Liverpool have been missing of late as Rafael Benitez's side swept into the last eight of the UEFA Champions League with a 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid.
In more than half a century of European competition this was the nine-times European champions's first visit to Anfield and, after what was a painfully chastening evening, they will be in no hurry to return. It is now five years since Real last managed to advance beyond this stage of the competiton while Liverpool take their place in the quarter-finals for the fourth time in five seasons under Benitez.
Torres, sidelined since an ankle injury forced him to limp out of the first leg, capped an exhilarating display of pace and technique with a 16th-minute opener. A double from captain Steven Gerrard, the first from the penalty spot, and a late strike by substitute Andrea Dossena completed a 5-0 aggregate win.
"The first 30 minutes we were awesome," said Gerrard. "I am not worried about statistics. The most important thing was winning the game. It was a fantastic team performance." Torres was also delighted to put one over Real. "Today was a massive game for us. It was very important for me to play tonight, it doesn't matter about the pain," he said in allusion to his recent injury woes.
From the outset it was evident that Juande Ramos's side would struggle to cope with the drive, pace and invention of a Liverpool side playing with a verve that belied their recent stuttering form in the Premier League. More of the same at Manchester United on Saturday and the domestic title race might just be back on again, particularly if Torres can stay fit for the run-in.
Despite his two-week lay-off, the Spaniard was quickly reminding the Anfield faithful of what their side misses in his absence. Collecting a pass from Gerrard on the edge of the penalty box, he pulled off the most audacious flick-and-turn combination to leave Fabio Cannavaro wobbling on his heels while the striker bore down on Casillas. The goalkeeper's boot frustrated Torres's attempt at a cute near post finish but the tone for the evening had been set. The corner that resulted from that piece of genius from Torres was cleared to Javier Mascherano, whose shot would have dipped under the bar but for the Spain goalkeeper's second fine save of the evening.
Upended on the edge of the area, Gerrard curled an eighth-minute free kick around the Real wall. Casillas's position was predictably immaculate but by this stage a goal for the hosts was looking a question of when, not if. It duly arrived with a quarter-hour gone. Cannavaro and his fellow centre-back Pepe failed to deal with a bouncing ball on the edge of their area, Torres muscled his way between them, fed the overlapping Dirk Kuyt and went on to stab home the Dutchman's low cross.
Casillas under pressure
A glancing header from Martin Skrtl drew another good stop from Casillas and the Real keeper excelled himself further to keep out Gerrard's full-stretch volley after another piece of trickery from Torres had left Sergio Ramos sprawling on the left of the box. Liverpool had done enough to earn a second goal but the penalty that brought it was unfortunate for Real. Gabriel Heinze unable to get out of the way when Alvaro Arbeloa's attempted to chest the ball down sent it against his upper arm. For once, Casillas made the wrong call, diving the wrong way as Gerrard thumped the spot-kick to his right.
Belatedly spurred into action, Real finally forced Pepe Reina into a save and it required a good one to keep out Wesley Sneijder's free-kick, unleashed with rare ferocity before a wall had been assembled. The Dutchman, whose season has been blighted by injury, tested Reina again just before the interval after Arjen Robben, largely anonymous until then, got free on the left and cut the ball back to his international team-mate. Sneijder's growing influence offered Real encouragement they might be able to make a game of it after the break.
But any optimism on that score was extinguished within two minutes of the restart as Real's fragile defending was exposed again. Babel found getting away from Ramos on the left far too easy and the winger's cutback was perfectly measured for an untracked Gerrard to sidefoot past Casillas from 14 yards. Dossena's close-range strike finished Real off two minutes from time after Babel and Mascherano had combined down the right to open up their demoralised opponents.
Reds buoyed for title clash
Rafael Benitez hailed the result as perfect preparation for Saturday's Premier League showdown with Manchester United. "When you have an important game coming up, if the players play well and score four goals against a top side like Real Madrid you have to be really pleased," the Spaniard said. "As a manager maybe it is the best way to approach a big game."
Benitez admitted Real had been caught cold by Liverpool's unexpectedly offensive approach to what had been anticipated as a much more cagey encounter. "We knew that maybe they were expecting that we would play deep and try to play on the counter-attack," Benitez added. "From the beginning we tried to put pressure on them and we kept on top of them from the beginning to the end."
For Real boss Juande Ramos, the defeat, which means Real have failed to advance beyond this stage since 2004, represents a blow to his chances of continuing in his job beyond the end of this season. The former Spurs manager admitted Liverpool deserved to go through but voiced grievances over the manner of their first two goals, claiming Torres and fouled Pepe in the build-up to the first while describing the penalty as doubtful.
"We conceded two early goals - both of which were doubtful," Ramos stated. "That meant we had to go all out for goals and we laid ourselves open to the counter attack. But they deserved to go through, they were the better side over the two legs."
Ramos dismissed a suggestion that such a demoralising defeat would handicap his side's chances of catching Barcelona in the race for the Spanish league title. "They are two totally different competitions. We carry on in La Liga with every hope of making a comeback and catching Barcelona. We will be trying as hard as we can for the rest of the season."