By Sportsmail Reporter
Hero: Fernando Torres notches the first of his two goals to put Liverpool into the Europa League quarter-finals
It was nervy and distinctly uncomfortable for the last half-hour, but Liverpool completed an English double in the Europa League with a masterclass from Fernando Torres.
The comeback from first-leg arrears may not have been on the same grand scale as Fulham’s, but there was still plenty to ease the pressure on Rafa Benitez. Not least further compelling evidence that Torres’s sure touch is once more beginning to function in the way that makes him arguably the most complete finisher anywhere in the world on his day.
Two goals against Portsmouth on Monday suggested he was getting there after his latest injury lay-off, and two more last night removed any doubt.
Benitez said: ‘I was only really comfortable when the third goal went in, but we have enough confidence to go on and win it. Fernando is close to 100 per cent now, and he lifts other players.
'When he and Gerrard are playing well, it makes a big difference.’
Main event: Argentina manager Diego Maradona watched on from the stands
Lille sensed a chance to exploit increasingly jittery Liverpool nerves and were threatening an away goal that would have sent them through when Torres ended any argument with a close-range 90th-minute finish after Steven Gerrard’s drive had bounced back off goalkeeper Mickael Landreau.
It had even Diego Maradona, at Anfield to monitor his skipper Javier Mascherano’s form, on his feet as the entire directors’ box joined in a standing ovation for Liverpool’s £21million record signing.
The accolades that regularly follow such exploits may well be gratefully received in the Torres household, but one of the greatest ever players joining in rapturous applause is surely something not even he has experienced before.
If Torres’s decisive late strike was relatively routine, by his standards, his first would have received Maradona’s seal of approval, as he pounced on a defensive error with lightning speed, surged past a challenge and cleverly lifted a shot over the advancing Landreau.
With the Spain striker clearly back to his lethal best, and Gerrard emulating him after looking subdued in recent weeks, Benitez can breathe more easily after being perturbed by an alarming drop in standards at Wigan and understandably angered by an ill-timed outburst from Albert Riera.
Fall guy: Adil Rami brings down Lucas for an early penalty at Anfield
While Riera is to pay a high price for speaking his mind, Torres showed why no-one took him to task when he bemoaned an overall lack of quality in Liverpool’s squad and urged owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to finance a summer of significant transfer spending by Benitez.
No-one would argue that Torres’s unrivalled flair belongs in the Champions League, though Liverpool’s failings this season have made a swift return to that competition improbable. Or have they?
Twice in three days, Liverpool have played with a purpose and belief that has been missing all too often, and with their big names fit again and firing as only they can, a Europa-League-and-fourth-place double could yet be on the agenda.
A quarter-final place was in the offing from the moment they seized the initiative with an eighthminute breakthrough.
Lucas had the vision and selfbelief to spot a gap and exploit it with a twisting run that took him past two challenges. He was bypassing a third when Adil Rami sent him sprawling with an outstretched boot.
It gave Gerrard the chance to put Liverpool level on aggregate and he sent Landreau the wrong way from the spot.
Party time: Steven Gerrard is mobbed by team-mates after hauling his side level on aggregate
Liverpool’s first-leg tormentor Eden Hazard almost undid them again in the 33rd minute after exchanging passes 40 yards out and accelerating between Glen Johnson and Daniel Agger before lifting a shot against the advancing Pepe Reina’s face.
Agger went close with a couple of headers from Gerrard corners and the impressive Lucas tested Landreau with a low drive before Torres increased Rami’s misery by doubling Liverpool’s lead on the night in the 49th minute.
As a long ball from Ryan Babel bounced over the hapless defender’s head, Torres almost seemed to sense it would happen as he latched on to it and held off a challenge from Aurelien Chedjou before winning a battle of wits with Landreau.
Liverpool were made to suffer after that, but only until Torres intervened once more. No wonder Maradona was on his feet.