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Sunday, April 5, 2009

The world’s finest double act


April 5, 2009


Gerrard and Torres may prove too hot for Chelsea to handle on Wednesday
Red for danger: Fernando Torres, left and Steven Gerrard, have already scored eight times between them in Europe this season
Jonathan Northcroft


When Ian Rush joined Liverpool in 1980 he was a gauche teenager with a bum-fluff moustache who drove a tatty Hillman Avenger. Senior players baited him, none more mercilessly than Kenny Dalglish, whom Rush decided quickly he disliked. First impressions don’t always count. Rush left for Juventus in 1987 with one European Golden Boot and 149 English league goals to his name. Dalglish had proved his provider and mentor. “He was always making me more aware of situations and patterns of play and pointing out weaknesses in the opponents’ defence,” Rush recalled. “And it became a case of when I made any sort of run, he’d be able to find me with a pass and play me in on goal.”

Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard are different. From the start, from the moment Torres scored majestically against Chelsea only 16 minutes into his Anfield debut, their relationship has been as equals, No 1 (Torres) and No 2 (Gerrard) in the club shop chart of replica shirt sales, Liverpool’s twin match winners, the two players Rafael Benitez possesses that every other manager in football covets.

“Liverpool FC is Gerrard plus 10 more,” Torres swoons.

“He’s the best striker in the world,” says Gerrard. “I love playing with him and he loves playing with me.”
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Guus Hiddink says Liverpool hold “no secrets” but knowing a hurricane is on its way does not mean you can withstand it. Chelsea face the most dynamic attack pairing in football on Wednesday and one that is redefining the term “strike partnership” in football.

Gerrard-Torres is a tandem for the age of the lone striker. Using one up front means players from deeper or wider have to support the No 9, and no central midfielder has been converted more successfully into a centre-forward’s sidekick than Gerrard dovetailing with Torres. The Kop likens them to Rush and Dalglish without feeling blasphemous.

The records of the two partnerships are eerily similar. Rush and Dalglish scored 334 times at a rate of 0.532 goals per game across nine seasons. Eight strikes in matches against Real Madrid, Manchester United and Aston Villa raised the combined total of Torres and Gerrard to 86 goals, at 0.534 per game, in the 20 months since Torres’ arrival in August 2007.

The chemistries contrast, however. Rush and Dalglish were an “opposites attract” marriage, the stocky, cerebral Scotsman employing close skills, deft passes and a geometrician’s head for angles continually to release the Welsh whip-pet. Torres and Gerrard are that rarer duality, one forged – like Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, or Romario and Bebeto – between similar types. Both run and shoot explosively and use surges of physical power to go past opponents, and take the shortest route to goal. Both are “inspiration players” who positively relish the solo fight, Torres happiest taking on a back four on his own, Gerrard enlivened when it’s him against a whole midfield. Benitez sees something else in common. “When you have good players with quality and intelligence, that’s the main thing – the intelligence. Gerrard is very quick passing the ball and Torres is very quick to run into the space,” the manager said.

Benitez likes fast, direct counter-attacking and abandoned Robbie Keane after only a few months, on realising that the Irishman wanted more touches than that style allows. Benitez had intended using Gerrard deeper but returned him to the role of Torres’ support in which he scored 22 goals in 2007-08. Gerrard already has 21 in 2008-09 even though he was operating earlier in the season as a holding player. “With Gerrard you know he is so good you can play him in different positions. If you need to change him for one specific game, you can do it,” Benitez said. “The team has balance with Gerrard and Torres in their positions and two midfielders.

“We are creating chances and scoring goals, so maybe we don’t need to change too much. For the team it is the best combination. We have to think about the team always.”

Gerrard admits the tough love of Benitez has been needed to make him take this tenet to heart. “Maybe when I was a bit younger I was a bit selfish, thinking of myself a bit too much when Rafa was playing me out of position. I should have maybe taken a deep breath and realised it was for the team,” he said with commendable candour last week.

Gerrard added he was now in his “favourite position” but this seems another trick of Benitez’s management: previously Gerrard appeared to favour being one of two central midfielders, albeit the partner with attacking licence.

Currently, he is a free player at the apex of a midfield three. Sometimes, as when winning a penalty in the 4-1 win at Manchester United, he swaps stations with Torres to become a centre-forward. It is thrilling, flexible, energetic: the stuff of modern football.

Torres has settled so well on Merseyside for the same reason Gerrard is cherished: he is a superstar with a blue-collar outlook. Dalglish and Rush were the same. Rush did not just wait and score but was an indefatigable harrier of defenders, and Mark Hughes, a partner for Wales, likes Torres’ similar appetite for the fray.

“I’ve a lot of respect for what he’s been able to do because I think it’s especially difficult for strikers with big reputations to come to our league and it’s one which is tougher physically than he was used to,” Hughes said.

“Torres played in a league where the skill of drawing fouls is respected, so to speak, and in this league it’s frowned upon. He’s realised that here you have to stand on your feet, you’ve got to ride challenges and as a consequence he’s been excellent.”

Barcelona have their burnished threesome of Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry. Manchester United rotate attacking options too often for them to have an established forward formation and, while there are attractions in world football’s other top strike pairings – Alexandre Pato and Kaka of AC Milan, Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose of Bayern Munich, Arsenal’s Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor – none has greater appeal than Gerrard-Torres.

Hiddink hopes Didier Drogba recovers from an ankle injury to reunite with Nicolas Anelka but so far that partnership has looked better on paper than on grass. Benitez is happy to be meeting Chelsea in a Champions League knockout tie without a build-up featuring Jose Mourinho’s bluster and cheek. “I was not distracted before, but you know that some managers want to play too many mind games. With Avram Grant, Luiz Scolari and Hiddink it is managers who have just been doing their job,” Benitez said.

“Mourinho is a very good manager but, okay, we knew it was a difficult situation because we were both fighting to win massive trophies. Maybe it is part of the game, but I think with Hiddink we will just be talking about football.”

You can’t help pining somewhat, however, for the days when Benitez and Mourinho riled each other. Football thrives on combinations and their double act was nearly as good as Torres and Gerrard’s.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009