LIVERPOOL, England, April 8, 2010 (AFP) - Fernando Torres fired Liverpool into the Europa League semi-finals as Thursday's 4-1 win against Benfica clinched a 5-3 aggregate triumph over the Portuguese club.
Rafael Benitez's side trailed 2-1 from the quarter-final first leg in Lisbon last week, but two goals in seven minutes from Dirk Kuyt and Lucas erased that deficit before half-time at Anfield.
|Torres celebrates after scoring the third goal during their UEFA Europa League Quarter Final Second Leg football match against Befica on April 8 2010. AFP PHOTO|
Torres added a third goal in the second half before Oscar Cardozo's free-kick put Benfica within one goal of going through on away goals.
Just as Liverpool were getting nervous, Torres struck again in the closing stages to set up a semi-final with Atletico Madrid as the Reds continue their bid for a first major European trophy since the 2005 Champions League.
Benitez said: "It was a good game and because the other team was very good you can say four goals was a fantastic performance, but I think we have played better this season."
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus added: "Our player was fouled inside the area (for the first goal) and that was the point. The first goal had some influence on the result but Liverpool have an excellent team and deserved their victory."
After a spluttering season marred by underachievement in the Premier League and Champions League, this was exactly the sort of result Benitez needed.
He made a very public attempt this week to force Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to give him substantial funds to improve the squad by hinting he had taken the current team as far as he could.
But, with a fourth place finish in the league still far from certain, Benitez's hopes of having his wish granted would be improved if he can win the Europa League.
Liverpool's arch rivals Manchester United had failed to overturn a 2-1 first-leg deficit against Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Wednesday but, faced with the same task 24 hours later, Benitez's side made a far better fist of the job.
After an uninspiring start, Liverpool took the lead in controversial circumstances in the 27th minute.
When Steven Gerrard curled over an inswinging corner, Kuyt was virtually on the goalline as he stood next to Benfica goalkeeper Julio Cesar before stepping away to head home from close-range.
Kuyt sprinted off in celebration but it initially seemed the goal had been ruled out for offside. However, after consulting with his linesman, Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers allowed the effort to stand, much to the consternation of the Benfica players who surrounded the official to protest.
The goal gave Liverpool a major surge of adrenaline and the hosts increased their advantage in the 34th minute.
Gerrard clipped a pass towards Lucas and the Brazilian midfielder timed his run perfectly to beat Benfica's offside trap before rounding Cesar and slotting into the empty net for his first goal since May 2009.
Benitez's decision to substitute Torres during the second half of Saturday's draw at Birmingham drew an angry response from fans and pundits, but the Spanish coach insisted it was essential to rest his star striker's knee injury.
And it was Torres who put Liverpool within touching distance of the last four as he capped a superb counter-attack in the 59th minute.
Javier Mascherano broke from deep inside Liverpool's half after a Benfica free-kick was cleared and the Argentine spread a pass out to Yossi Benayoun on the left wing.
Benayoun drove towards the Benfica area before picking out Kuyt, who whipped a low cross for Torres to gleefully slot past Cesar.
Cardozo caused Liverpool hearts to flutter when he smashed a low free-kick past Jose Reina in the 70th minute.
That was the signal for Benfica to pour forward and Cardozo nearly stole the tie for the visitors when another free-kick deflected just wide off Torres.
But Torres ended Benfica's resistence in the 82nd minute when he ran onto Mascherano's pass and chipped a delightful finish over substitute goalkeeper Moreira.