Torres key at United, but Liverpool have already given up

Consider two quotes from Fernando Torres, taken from an interview with FourFourTwo magazine, published in early February.

1. “Everyone at the club is completely focused on winning the league; it’s more important than the Champions League, more important than anything. It’s an obsession for the fans and the club.”

2. “Playing against Real Madrid is not special.”

If both those statements are true, Manchester United’s defence shouldn’t sleep a wink on Friday night as they contemplate facing the Spaniard at Old Trafford tomorrow.

The recurring nightmare of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will be Torres slaloming this way and that, teasing, tempting, bamboozling, then bursting past them with that awesome change of pace and slamming the ball into Edwin Van der Sar’s net.

El Nino sends Vidic into a spin

Because if the performance of Torres on Tuesday night against Real Madrid is anything to go by, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team are in serious trouble.

In a game that wasn’t special, played in a tournament that wasn’t his main priority, Torres was awesome, driving poor Pepe to distraction… then rubbing his nose in it during a 4-0 win.

In the build up to the game, the Portuguese defender had announced that he knew exactly how he was going to stop Torres, but it took the Spaniard just 16 minutes to prove him wrong.

Spanish newspaper Marca later claimed that, during the game, Pepe had tried to goad Torres, saying: “We have nine European cups.”

Torres’s reply? “Yes, but you have zero.”

So Liverpool marched on in Europe… again. But now Torres is undergoing intensive treatment and a battle to be fit for a match that, back in February at least, he himself believed was more important than anything.

Defeat at Old Trafford will leave Liverpool 10 points behind United (who will still have a game in hand), and their dreams of a first league title in 19 years in tatters.

Rafa's stricken star hobbles off 

And yet their key player, the matchwinner capable of terrorising even Europe’s meanest defence, may not even make it on to the pitch.

Tuesday’s game was Torres’s first in two weeks, and he has since admitted he played through the pain barrier – his injured ankle was encased in a protective cast as soon as he came off.

It’s even been claimed that Torres had to persuade Rafa Benitez to risk him in that match.

He says he’ll be fit to play against United: “I feel good. My ankle felt a little painful in the second half against Real, but that doesn't matter for a match like this."

Yet the fact that both Torres and Benitez were willing to take the gamble against Madrid shows the shift in priorities at Anfield in recent weeks.

Call it pragmatism or defeatism, manager and star player know that win or lose on Saturday, barring a miracle, this title race is already lost. Better to focus on a competition they can still win.

In which case, Torres needn’t worry. Rafa will probably give him a nice, comfy seat on the bench at Old Trafford.

"Reserved for Torres"

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