Liverpool blow Real Madrid away
He may be a faceless bureaucrat or an unknown statistician, but the compiler of UEFA's European club rankings can congratulate himself on his formula. Liverpool, as Rafa Benitez had noted with satisfaction, are placed above all others. He demanded respect, and he should now receive copious quantities. Liverpool produced a performance worthy of the best, humbling Benitez's beloved Real Madrid.
Had UEFA's rankings been assessed over 55 years rather than five, first position would have belonged to Real Madrid. This, though, was a salutary warning to arguably the world's biggest club. The gulf was vast, wider than the smiles at Anfield and more pronounced than even the scoreline indicated.
The consequence was that this lacked the tension of some European nights, though Liverpool compensated with their considerable quality. This was a joyous occasion, a cacophonous celebration of brilliance.
At a club where authenticity matters, they were the real deal. Real appeared imposters on the European stage, donning the kit of the club with the greatest tradition in the competition but incapable of competing with their quicker, sharper opponents. It was perhaps the outstanding display of Benitez's five-year reign. It was perhaps the nadir for Real in their five successive exits at this stage. But for the magnificent Iker Casillas, the nine-time winners could have been beaten 9-0.
They were abject, stylishly scythed apart by the sensational Steven Gerrard and the formidable Fernando Torres. Apologies should be proffered. Liverpool's victory in Madrid preceded an outbreak of footballing snobbery in Spain. Real, the implication was, wouldn't win in such a manner. The accusations were directed at a man schooled at the Bernabeu. The rebuttal was swift and emphatic. Boring, boring Benitez? Not a bit of it. The safety-first strategist sent out a team of entertainers, the flicks and tricks belonged to the men in red, the one-touch football rendering it an exhibition performed at blistering speed. Liverpool may have been misers in Madrid; they were adventurers at Anfield.
They could have scored twice within the first four minutes. Real surrendered the moral high ground within 30. They abandoned any pretence they could overturn the one-goal deficit. There was no white storm, no white lightning and precious little white spirit.
"To win any game is important, so it doesn't matter the name of the other team," insisted the happiest Real fan at Anfield, Benitez. "We are top of these rankings because in the last five years we have been very good." The message to his compatriots who had branded him defensive was simple: "Look at the facts, look at the figures. Liverpool scored 119 goals in all competitions last season and that proves something." With typical obstinacy, he ignored invitations to single anyone out, but added: "We played really well from the beginning to the end. We showed today we can play in different ways. We knew that they were expecting us to stay deep and play on the counter-attack."
His outwitted and eliminated counterpart, Juande Ramos, said: "We're very disappointed indeed. We're sad because we are out of the competition. Liverpool were just too good on the night. They were better side and they deserved to go through." Nevertheless, he added: "We conceded two early goals, both of which had their doubts." However, the elements of controversy should not conceal Liverpool's dominance. A sense of injustice should not obscure Real's failings.
Their validity was questioned, but the lead was deserved. When Torres diverted the ball to Dirk Kuyt for the opener, Real claimed a foul on Cannavaro. Yet their statuesque response meant that, when the Dutchman centred, both Gerrard and Torres languished unmarked, the Spaniard tapping in. Accustomed to life at a club who operate in Real's considerable shadow, the former Atletico captain duly rejoiced in front of the visiting Castilians.
Then Gabriel Heinze was adjudged to have handled, when he had actually shouldered, the ball inside the box. Gerrard's 100th European game was already cause for celebration, but his coolly dispatched penalty brought more.
His second of the night made Gerrard the leading scorer in this season's Champions League. After the rampaging Ryan Babel cut the ball back from the left flank, the captain arrived at pace to lift his shot into the roof of the net. It appeared the product of unstoppable momentum, a characteristic of Gerrard at his best. After his departure, the rout was completed by Andrea Dossena, sliding a shot beyond Casillas from Javier Mascherano's low cross.
Casillas deserved better after producing a series of outstanding saves to thwart Torres and Gerrard twice, plus the marauding Mascherano. It meant that the perfectionist at the helm at Anfield was not completely satisfied. "Close," said Benitez. "But we could have scored more goals."
Four was enough to make it Real's heaviest Champions League defeat. Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Julio Iglesias, Sergio Garcia: your boys took one hell of a beating. And it was orchestrated by one of your own.
• MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard - There are matches when Gerrard is astonishingly good, and this was one. But for Casillas and his removal when the game was becoming more open, he would have become a rare player to score a hat-trick against Real.
• LIVERPOOL VERDICT: They were absolutely superb. If Gerrard and Torres were the star turns, the tireless Mascherano, the industrious Kuyt, the mercurial Babel and the defiant Jamie Carragher all played their part. Yet the sense of achievement is heightened by a glance at Liverpool's slender squad. The valiant Sami Hyypia aside, the bench comprised of Diego Cavalieri, Dossena, Lucas Leiva, David Ngog, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly.
• REAL MADRID VERDICT: Apart from Casillas, only the indefatigable Lassana Diarra should escape censure. They were overwhelmed and overpowered. Whether it is the past fixation with galaticos, the revolving door to the manager's office or the penchant for knee-jerk reactions, something is seriously awry for Real, despite their lavish expenditure, to prove this poor.
• JAY'S DAY: With 17 minutes remaining, Benitez brought on Jay Spearing for just his second Liverpool appearance. With the Kop chorusing his name and the local lad tearing around, harassing a demoralised Real side, it scarcely appeared credible.