LIVERPOOL (AFP) – Fernando Torres eased the pressure on Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez as his sublime strike inspired a 2-0 win over arch rivals Manchester United on Sunday.
Manchester United's English forward Wayne Rooney (R) vies with Liverpool's English defender Glen Johnson (L) during the English Premier League football match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield in Liverpool.(AFP photo)
Benitez had endured a miserable week as Liverpool's losing run extended to four matches, their worst spell for 22 years, but Spanish striker Torres gave his compatriot a much-needed boost with a lethal second half finish before David Ngog's stoppage time goal secured a third successive win against United.
A chaotic closing period also saw both sides finish with 10 men as Nemanja Vidic was sent off for hauling down Dirk Kuyt - the United defender's third red card in his last three matches against Liverpool - and then Javier Mascherano was dismissed for a clumsy foul on Edwin van der Sar.
After being widely written off as also-rans ahead of the Anfield showdown, Liverpool have closed the gap on Premier League leaders Chelsea to six points and stopped United regaining top spot, as well as condemning the champions to their first defeat in 12 matches.
It was no more than Liverpool deserved for the kind of intelligent and passionate display that has been missing too often this season.
With Steven Gerrard's failure to recover from a groin injury in time to feature forced Benitez to gamble on Torres's fitness as he tried to avoid presiding over a fifth successive defeat and Liverpool's worst run for 56 years.
With so much at stake, it was hardly surprising that the pre-match fans' protest march against Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who sat together in the directors' box, didn't carry on in the stadium.
But the fierce rivalry between the clubs means that no slip is too small to be gloated over.
United's travelling fans threw beach balls onto the Anfield pitch before kick-off in celebration of Darren Bent's infamous goal for Sunderland last weekend. although they had their thunder stolen by the Kop, who unleashed their own barrage of inflatable balls moments later.
Benitez would have appreciated Liverpool managing director Christian Purslow's declaration that the Spaniard's job was safe, but those words would count for nothing if United effectively killed off their title challenge.
Fabio Aurelio had van der Sar at full stretch to keep out a free-kick that was curling towards the top corner and the Dutch goalkeeper had to recover quickly to block Kuyt's follow-up.
Kuyt shoud have forced van der Sar into action soon after but shot wide after Lucas's pass picked out the Dutch forward in yards of space.
It took United 20 minutes to piece together their first really incisive attack as Rooney met Antonio Valencia's cross with a header that Jose Reina clutched low to his right.
Liverpool were showing the greater urgency and Aurelio tested van der Sar again, this time with a far-post header from Yossi Benayoun's cross, but his effort was too close to the United keeper.
Several United players, infuriated by Andre Marriner's failure to agree with two half-hearted penalty appeals, surrounded the referee at half-time.
United were content to maintain their surprisingly cautious approach again after the break, while centre backs Vidic and Rio Ferdinand singled out Torres for some crunching challenges.
Torres, who had tormented Vidic in Liverpool's 4-1 win at Old Trafford last season, had been relatively subdued. But he sprang to life in ruthless fashion in the 65th minute.
Yossi Benayoun slipped a perceptive pass to Torres in the United penalty area and he burst clear of Ferdinand, ignoring the defender's attempt to tug his shirt, before lashing a rising shot past van der Sar.
That prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to send on former Liverpool striker Michael Owen and he was greeted with a torrent of abuse from all four sides of Anfield.
Valencia was within a whisker of equalising in the 84th minute when he crashed a fierce strike against the crossbar.
United must have realised it wasn't to be their day when Jamie Carragher escaped with a booking after hauling down Owen as he burst through on goal in the closing moments.
Their misery was complete when Vidic was sent off in the last minute for a grabbing Kuyt and hauling him to the turf as he threatened to break clear.
After Mascherano's foolish second booking, Ngog, on for Torres, put the result beyond down when he surged through and slotted past van der Sar.