Fernando Torres' terrific hat-trick

Fernando Torres was aided and abetted by some dubious defending and goalkeeping, but that is what great players do: they unnerve their opponents and force errors, often by doing little more than being in the same area of the pitch, writes Daniel Taylor.

The man in question is Fernando Torres, the first Liverpool player to score 20 goals in a season since Michael Owen five years ago and the only credible challenger to Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fabregas when it comes to dishing out this season's individual awards.

It might need something remarkable between now and the end of the season to deny Ronaldo another clean sweep but Torres' hat-trick does at least reaffirm that Liverpool have a striker of genuine brilliance.

To say that Torres won the game on his own would be mildly unfair on some of his team-mates, but only just. What cannot be disputed is that there were the tell-tale signs of another chastening Saturday for Rafael Benitez before those moments when the club's most-prized asset turned the game upside down. Admittedly Torres was aided and abetted by some dubious defending and goalkeeping, but that is what great players do: they unnerve their opponents and force errors, often by doing little more than being in the same area of the pitch.

The goal that confirmed another match ball for Torres' collection was a case in point, his mere presence proving enough to unsettle David Wheater and Mark Schwarzer. Despite describing himself as "devastasted", Gareth Southgate's anguish � the away side did, after ? all, have a reasonable argument they merited something from the match � did not cloud his vision to the point where he was unable to empathise.

The Middlesbrough manager recalled a pre-season friendly at the Riverside in August 2005 when a 20-year-old Torres scored for Atletico Madrid in a 2-1 win, an occasion that served as a brutal reminder to Southgate, approaching his 35th birthday, that his legs were no longer as quick as his brain. "I didn't do very well against him either," Southgate conceded with a wry smile. "There's a reason why I retired, you know."

Torres' first goal demonstrated that, one on one, he is the most lethal striker in English football. The second was all about power and precision and his third was a more difficult finish than he made it look. The Spaniard then gave an equally accomplished performance in front of the microphones.

"It's the second hat-trick of my Liverpool career so it's a very happy day for me," he said. "But I would prefer to be remembered as someone who helped Liverpool to win trophies than a great goalscorer.

"I'm here to win titles and the Champions League is a very important target for me this season. I've got to score goals because it's my job but it's not the most important thing for me and I can consider the season a success only if we win something. I'm 23 and I've never won a medal. The only time was when I was an under-16 and under-19 player and that's too long ago."

His individual repertoire of talents � two-footed, a brilliant sense of anticipation, fast and penetrative and, in front of goal, blessed with the calmness of a bomb disposal expert � did at least offer hope among a generally underwhelmed Anfield crowd. Yet, he will not often be presented with the type of chances that led to his first goal, when Middlesbrough's captain Julio Arca attempted an inexplicable header back to his goalkeeper from 40 yards and did not even get it to the penalty area.

Southgate's side had exposed Liverpool's shortcomings � and a wonky offside trap � to take the lead in the ninth minute, courtesy of Tuncay Sanli's header from Stewart Downing's crisp free-kick.

They might have felt confident of grabbing a late equaliser, too, once Downing had stabbed a shot beyond Jose Reina to make it 3-2. Yet, Jeremie Aliadiere's little swipe at Javier Mascherano enticed a red card from the referee's back pocket and the momentum was lost.

The Frenchman's naivety for reacting to Mascherano's snide little nose-tweak will cost him a three-game ban and Middlesbrough will get a mandatory �50,000 fine from the Football Association � it being the second time this season they have compelled a referee to brandish yellow or red cards on six occasions.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008