Clinical Torres delights Reds boss

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez hailed Fernando Torres as one of the best strikers in the world after his late winner against Aston Villa.

The Spanish star netted his 50th league goal for Liverpool in the third minute of injury time to become the fastest player to achieve a half century for the Merseysiders in his 72nd Premier League game.

Victory enabled Liverpool to reduce the gap to fourth-placed Tottenham to four points and moved them within two points of Villa.

Benitez said: "We knew we had to reduce the gap. Sometimes we have had some really bad luck. Today we have scored a late goal and I’m really pleased for Fernando and the team.

"It was his 50th league goal and when he signed for us I knew we were getting a very good player with good quality and a good mentality.

"You saw that today. He has one chance and he can score. He is one of the best strikers in the world."

Benitez knows the importance of keeping Torres, who has been troubled by a groin problem, fit for the majority of the campaign, although he revealed an ankle injury has also given cause for concern. He said: "Fernando has had some problems with his ankle more than his groin and he has been working very hard with the fitness coach and the physio.

"It depends on how he feels (in terms of how many games he can play) but today he was okay."

Benitez also repeated his "guarantee" that Liverpool would finish in the top four. He added: "People keep asking me this but I will say again, the manager has to believe and I believe we will be in the top four at the end of the season."

Villa boss Martin O’Neill was deflated after his side’s second defeat in three days following the 3-0 reversal at Arsenal on Sunday. And he felt the extra 24 hours Liverpool had to recover from their game against Wolves on Saturday may have been a factor.

He said: "It’s a blow, there’s no doubt about it, a real, real blow to us.

"We will just have to reflect on it. It was said to me that it’s been a poor Christmas and, of course, yes, in terms of results it has been, but we should have won.

"We played two games in 48 hours – this sounds very much like a bleat – but at this stage of the season those extra hours might have made a difference.

"Having said that, I thought we finished very strongly. There was a little period about 20 minutes into the second half where I thought we got a bit of control, came again very strongly.

"Their goalkeeper (Pepe Reina) has made a great save in each half, one from Stewart Downing and one from Gabby (Agbonlahor) later on. We have had two which have gone inches past the post.

"It’s hard to take but we will come again."