Torres revives Reds’ top-four hopes

The Spaniard drilled a low shot across Villa keeper Brad Friedel in

the 93rd minute to become the fastest player in Reds history to

score a half century of league goals. It means Rafael Benitez’s

side are only two points behind Villa and three adrift of

fourth-placed Tottenham in the race for Champions League places.

Liverpool keeper Jose Reina had earlier produced two crucial saves

to deny Villa who were searching for their first home win over the

Reds for nearly 12 years. The Spaniard somehow kept out a

close-range volley from Stewart Downing in the first half and then

denied Villa’s top scorer Gabriel Agbonlahor after he had broken

clear midway through the second period. And Liverpool appeared to

have strong first half claims for a penalty after a challenge by

Villa central defender Richard Dunne on Dirk Kuyt. Villa lacked

sharpness and perhaps having a day less than Liverpool to recover

from their opening game of the festive programme – a 3-0 reversal

at Arsenal – may have taken its toll. Liverpool skipper Steven

Gerrard tried to inspire his side in conditions that became

increasingly difficult underfoot. But it was Torres who produced

the moment of magic after capitalising on a loose pass from former

Liverpool defender Stephen Warnock. Villa, 3-1 winners at Anfield

in August, made a promising start in the blizzard-like conditions.

Downing lined up a shot just outside the Reds box but his fierce

drive was blocked by Alberto Aquilani. Torres failed to make proper

contact on an overhead kick from a deflected Gerrard centre. Luke

Young was out quickly to block a shot on the edge of the Villa box

from Lucas Leiva after Dunne had headed clear a Gerrard corner.

Reina was called into meaningful action for the first time after 14

minutes in blocking a header at the far post from Dunne following

another Downing corner. Gerrard tried his luck with a 30-yard

free-kick but his shot deflected off the Villa wall and out for a

corner. But it needed a fine save from Brad Friedel to deny

Liverpool from taking the lead after 17 minutes. Torres teed up

Gerrard just outside the Villa area and his curling first time shot

was tipped over the bar by the former Liverpool keeper. Reina got

his body behind a low drive from James Milner. Villa skipper

Stiliyan Petrov was off target with a bicycle kick after Nigel

Reo-Coker had played the ball into the Liverpool area. But it

needed a magnificent reflex save from Reina to prevent Downing from

giving Villa the lead after 31 minutes. Milner’s corner was met at

the far post by Downing and he could not have struck his volley

more cleanly but Reina somehow managed to fist away his shot from

close range. Dunne became the first player to be booked after 41

minutes for a challenge on Lucas. Then Lucas followed the Villa

defender into the referee’s notebook for a foul against Agbonlahor.

Liverpool appealed in vain for a penalty after a challenge by Dunne

on the recalled Kuyt eight minutes before the interval. Liverpool,

unbeaten at Villa Park since February 1998, enjoyed the majority of

possession at the start of the second period without seriously

threatening the home goal. There was a three minute delay wile

Reina was allowed to change his footwear, much to the annoyance of

the Villa fans in the Holte End. Gerrard was on the receiving end

of a knee high challenge from Carlos Cuellar just outside the Villa

box but Aquilani’s free-kick dipped over the bar. Villa suddenly

came to life with Reina producing his second excellent save of the

night to deny Agbonlahor after he had shaken off the challenge of

Jamie Carragher. From Milner’s inswinging centre, John Carew was

inches wide of the far post with a flick header. But that was

effectively the end of the goalmouth incidents until Torres’

dramatic finale. Kuyt took control of a poor pass from Warnock on

the right flank. The ball was collected by Yossi Benayoun in

midfield but as Agbonlahor came back to tackle, the Villa striker

only succeeded in pushing it through to Torres inside the Villa box

and he slid a low shot into the bottom far corner of Friedel’s

goal.