Fernando Torres piled the pressure on Manchester United at the top of the Premier League as Liverpool bounced back from their UEFA Champions League agony to beat Blackburn Rovers 4-0 at Anfield. The Spain striker scored two goals, the first a magnificent volley, while Denmark defender Daniel Agger marked his return to the side with an equally impressive effort to send Rafa Benitez's side two points above United, who kick off at Sunderland later today.
Substitute David Ngog also found the net as Liverpool produced the perfect response after crashing 3-1 at home to Chelsea in Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final, first leg. But Benitez's side will travel to London for Tuesday's return leg at Stamford Bridge with a glimmer of hope that they can produce a remarkable turnaround against Guus Hiddink's side after this easy victory. They brushed aside struggling Blackburn without influential captain Steven Gerrard, who has been struggling with a groin problem but could start at Chelsea.
This was Liverpool's last home game before Wednesday's 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, which claimed the lives of 96 of the club's supporters. As well as a minute's silence before the game, Blackburn's former Liverpool defender Stephen Warnock laid a wreath in front of the Kop in memory of those who lost their lives at the Liverpool versus Nottingham Forest FA Cup semi-final on 15 April 1989.
Benitez had demanded a reaction from his players following the European capitulation against Chelsea, and the Liverpool manager got one as Torres lifted the sombre mood around Anfield with a stunning fifth-minute finish. He controlled a long pass forward by stand-in captain Jamie Carragher on his chest, before smashing an unstoppable volley from an acute angle over the head of former England keeper Paul Robinson.
It was a truly breathtaking finish yet fans could not help but feel a slight sense of deja vu. Less than 72 hours earlier, Torres had fired his side into an early lead only for Liverpool to self-destruct and leave their Champions League ambitions in tatters.
Would the Reds fail to cash in on an early lead again? The answer this time was an emphatic no, as Liverpool proved they had learned their lesson from the other night by cementing the points before half time.
Torres, Javier Mascherano, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun all spurned clear-cut chances to score against a poor Blackburn side, before the former made it 2-0 in the 34th minute with a move made in Spain. An in-swinging free-kick by Xabi Alonso found the head of Torres, who beat Christopher Samba in the air before powering his effort beyond the outstretched hands of Robinson. It was all too comfortable for the hosts.
Blackburn had arrived on Merseyside with a five-point safety cushion, but they are facing an anxious end to the season as they battle to steer clear of relegation. Manager Sam Allardyce made the surprising decision to use Samba, who usually plays in defence, up front as a lone striker, while South Africa international Benni McCarthy, the club's 11-goal leading scorer, was left kicking his heels on the substitutes bench.
The tactic backfired badly as Blackburn struggled to cause Liverpool, who have now conceded just once in seven hours and fifty-seven minutes of league action, any problems. There was a first-half chance for Samba after a rare defensive lapse, but keeper Jose Reina was on his toes to snuff out the danger.
Blackburn improved in the second half without managing to hurt Liverpool, who could afford the luxury of bringing Torres off 15 minutes from time. Eight minutes later, Agger found the net with a spectacular 30-yard effort, before substitute Ngog capped a fine team performance by making it 4-0 in the final moments.