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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
Read

Kop let owners know who's boss

Liverpool 4 - 1 Porto

The streets around Anfield, narrow and framed by ramshackle buildings, populated by the marching supporters with strong accents and still stronger opinions, represent a world away from the boardroom, an entirely separate universe from that the corporate financiers occupy.

Proper football men, ugly as the expression is, realise this. But the concept of the owner who doubles up as a fan is appearing outdated. When David Moores was the lone man in the Newcastle directors' box to stand and applaud the substituted Steven Gerrard on Saturday, his were the actions of an anachronism. Some of the current breed absent themselves; others use their club to celebrate the King of Thailand's birthday with excessive enthusiasm.

Still more, unused to dissent, behave intransigently as George Gillett and, in particular, Tom Hicks have done. The latter has displayed that the Texan concept of diplomacy is a novel one. A fondness for beginning unpopular conflicts thousands of miles away, while understanding little of the locals' hostility, is not the soundest basis for international relations, especially when in a minority.

Because while popularity contests are rarely edifying, they can be educative. This one certainly was. Money alone does not earn esteem and leveraged buy-outs certainly don't. Enabling a fundamentally average side to win the Champions League certainly does.

And this popularity contest, starting with the march outside Anfield 90 minutes before kick-off, was a landslide victory for Rafael Benitez. It demonstrated that, to influence Liverpool's future, it is essential to understand their past. It is necessary to have a grasp of the psyche of the city as well as the mentality, to borrow one of Benitez's favourite words, of the supporters.

In Liverpool, they rally round when they feel one of their own is under attack. Notwithstanding his Castilian upbringing, that category includes Benitez. 'Rafa is a Scouser,' was among the chants the protesting fans aired. The match began, as it ended and as much of the first half proceeded, to the soundtrack of a raucous chorus of the manager's name.

Messrs Hicks and Gillett, meanwhile, went mentioned. Outside Anfield, the Spaniard was merged with Che Guevara on one specially designed flag. Whether forming a hybrid picture with another who met an untimely demise, courtesy, albeit indirectly, of the Americans, is an unfortunate portent remains to be seen. At least it was an attempt to grant the Rafalutionary iconic status.

That was enhanced on an anxious, but ultimately satisfactory night for the majority. Liverpool have a tendency to fray the nerves and they were doing so again until three goals in 10 late minutes, coupled with Besiktas' victory over Marseille, provided a passage towards the 16. Benitez's dream of a May in Moscow could yet be realised.

It was a combination of his costliest buy and his most maligned player who delivered the decisive moment. A draw beckoned for the stubborn Portuguese side until the substitute Harry Kewell threaded a pass through to Fernando Torres, who slipped between Bosingwa and Milan Stepanov and lifted his shot beyond Helton. It was a high-calibre goal albeit one that, the American owners may reflect ruefully, they helped finance with the £26 million acquisition of Torres.

As euphoria overwhelmed Anfield, Porto subsided. Stepanov handled and Steven Gerrard converted the resulting penalty before Peter Crouch, another effective replacement, headed in Gerrard's right-wing corner.

It meant the captain was involved in a trio of goals. His corner was converted by Torres for the opener, a reward for a fine start from Liverpool, seemingly roused by the reception their manager was afforded. But when Porto, previously unthreatening, levelled through the unchecked Lisandro Lopez's header from a Przemyslaw Kazmierczak cross, Liverpool lost their fluency.

I don't have a personal problem with the owners. We were talking about the future of the club.
Rafael Benitez
Passes were mislaid with Gerrard a culprit, at times alarmingly. Urgency took over, but at a cost to composure. And, for all their attacking intent, they only came close when Ryan Babel had a shot cleared off the line. Then came an injection of class, courtesy of Kewell and Torres.

'For me his price doesn't matter,' said Benitez. 'It's not important the money but Torres is a player who can score goals.' He had begun with a message to his vocal fan club. 'I want to say thank you to our supporters because they were as always magnificent.' Of the march he added, with an inadvertent echo of his catchphrase of last week: 'I knew that something was going on but I was focusing on the game.'

Yet, while eager to diffuse talk of a row, he stopped short of backing down. He explained: 'I don't have a personal problem with the owners. We were talking about the future of the club. I was not angry, I was just surprised a little bit [with their reaction].

'I was trying to improve my club. Maybe we need to wait but it was a strange situation. I think we need to talk in the future and we will see. It's not my ego, it's my responsibility. It could be easier for me not to say anything but I prefer to be involved and earn my wages.'

With his substitutions, he did so tonight. If he does again in Marseille, Liverpool will be in the last 16 and Benitez's bargaining position will be strengthened.

'Rafa's going nowhere,' asserted the Kop. The decision is not in their hands, but their backing may sway it. So will this win.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Fernando Torres - The two most significant goals of his Liverpool career thus far were very different, but equally well taken. They showcased the range in his game, as did his incisive dribbling.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Given the pressure he was under, it is to Benitez's credit that he was vindicated in the majority of the decisions he took. Yossi Benayoun was inventive in the early stages, Alvaro Arbeloa - selected at left-back - kept Ricardo Quaresma quiet to the extent that the winger switched flanks while Crouch and Kewell emerged from the bench to have an impact. But, Gerrard, Torres and Javier Mascherano apart, few of Liverpool's midfielders and forwards look like automatic choices.

PORTO VERDICT: For some 45 minutes, before Liverpool's late rally, they appeared a very accomplished side, with Lucho Gonzalez especially influential. Despite the late capitulation, a home game with Besiktas in their final fixture means they should still qualify as group winners.

IGOR'S ONLY FAN: For perhaps the first time, someone was spotted at Anfield in a replica shirt with Igor Biscan's name on it. It must be a collector's item.

HAVING A LAUGH? Either the translator was faulty or Jesauldo Ferreira, the Porto coach, was asked why he played with four jokers from the start.

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