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Anfield stroll ideal warm-up for Inter test; BARCLAYS PREMIER LEAGUE.

Byline: IAN DOYLE at Anfield

Liverpool 3

Newcastle 0

THE supporter who turned towards to the Press box moments before the final whistle hit the nail firmly on the head.

"We've paid pounds 34 to watch a training session!" exclaimed the fan as Liverpool sauntered to a fifth successive triumph on Saturday.

His words weren't derogatory about the manner in which Rafael Benitez's side continued to build their impressive momentum in the race for fourth place with a routine win against a desperate Newcastle United.

They instead highlighted the ease at which Liverpool had been afforded the ideal warm-up for tomorrow night's Champions League crunch against Inter Milan in Italy.

Ahead of such an important game, the Magpies would be high on the list of preferred opponents, particularly given the alarming slide that not even the return of Kevin Keegan has been able to address.

So it proved.

Long before the final whistle, from a subdued home support to a decent if unspectacular performance on the field, minds inside Anfield had already started to turn to finishing the job in the San Siro.

It was that kind of afternoon when, while little new was learned, reputations were reinforced; Fernando Torres is a master finisher, Steven Gerrard is revelling in his new midfield role, and Newcastle are relegation material.

Benitez had freely spoken before the game about why Torres was at the top of a list of striker targets last summer that also included Michael Owen.

Given Newcastle's sorry state of affairs, it would be lazy and unfair to weigh up the respective merits of each player on Saturday's evidence. But beyond any doubt is the impact Torres has made on Benitez's team.

The Spaniard began the day by being presented with the February Player of the Month award and ended it having added yet another goal to his tally and demonstrated the unselfish team ethic that has made him as popular among his team-mates as with his adoring supporters.

There may have been no third match ball after successive Anfield hat-tricks against Middlesbrough and West Ham United, but his strike took him to within one of becoming the first Liverpool player since Robbie Fowler in 1996-97 to reach 20 in the league for the campaign and edged him nearer Ruud van Nistelrooy's record for most goals by a foreign player in his debut season in England.

Rather than Owen or Fowler, the pace, devastating finishing and work-rate of Torres are drawing comparisons with perhaps the greatest of all Liverpool strikers, Ian Rush.

But if Torres is the new Rush then, once again employed in an advanced midfield role behind the Spaniard, some of Gerrard's link play is reminiscent of Kenny Dalglish.

Certainly, the skipper was the creator supreme on the stroke of half-time as the pair combined to devastating effect to land the knockout blow to a Newcastle side already left reeling by Jermaine Pennant's fortuitous opener two minutes earlier.

From a swift counter-attack, Torres headed the ball in the path of a marauding Gerrard and sprinted into space.

Spotting the run of his team-mate, Gerrard then arced a perfect pass into the path of the forward who, evoking memories of Pele's famous dummy at the 1970 World Cup, shimmied and left Newcastle goalkeeper Steve Harper on his backside before slotting into the empty net. Anfield will probably not see a finer pass or goal this season.

Torres returned the compliment six minutes after the interval when, after Gerrard's challenge in midfield had won possession, the Spaniard strode forward from the halfway line and slipped a neat pass in to the Liverpool skipper who dinked the ball over the advancing Harper.

The recent shift in tactics to a 4-2-3-1 formation that rarely convinced on the few occasions it was utilised earlier in the campaign might not be suitable for every game, particularly when Liverpool are faced by more obdurate opposition than Newcastle. But it allows Benitez to select more of his better players and, more importantly, encourage more effective performances from them.

Gerrard in particular has embraced his new role, which strips him of many of his defensive responsibilities while allowing free rein to rampage forward and develop his burgeoning partnership with Torres.

Since the FA Cup exit to Barnsley Liverpool have won five successive games using present formation. They have scored 15 goals in that period, 10 of which have been netted by Torres and Gerrard. Enough said.

Liverpool's dominance allowed both to be withdrawn midway through the second half and an underworked Pepe Reina to keep a 14th Premier League clean sheet of the campaign.

The defence can expect a much sterner test against Inter tomorrow night. But, with Martin Skrtel further justifying his January arrival with a solid performance and Alvaro Arbeloa impressive at right-back, there is a confidence among the back line that can resist any Italian revival. Despite the San Siro date being his team's fourth game in 10 days, Benitez limited his rotation to the flanks where Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel made way for Pennant and Yossi Benayoun, with Lucas replacing the injured Javier Mascherano in the only other change.

And Pennant, handed only his third league start since returning from injury at the turn of the year, broke down a surprisingly stubborn Newcastle resistance two minutes before the interval with only his second goal for the club.

The first, 14 months earlier at home to Chelsea, was a screamer into the Anfield Road net. Pennant knew little about his latest strike into the same goal, however, Jose Enrique inexplicably blasting his attempted clearance against the Liverpool man and the ball looping over Harper from eight yards.

For the second week in succession, it was a lucky opener for Benitez's side.

But the cracks had already began to appear in the Newcastle defence and, as against Bolton Wanderers, Liverpool made the most of their fortune and three goals in eight minutes either side of half-time ensured a deservedly relaxed final half-hour.

Newcastle only threatened when Obafemi Martins entered from the bench on the hour, the Nigerian responsible for Newcastle's best effort on 70 minutes with an outrageous dipping volley from 40 yards that crashed against Reina's crossbar.

But with Gerrard, John Arne Riise and substitute Kuyt all denied by Harper in the second half, Liverpool's margin of victory could easily have been greater.

By the closing stages, however, Benitez's side were already preparing themselves for their next assignment.

They know tomorrow at the San Siro will be anything but a training session.

MAN OF THE MATCH

Steven Gerrard

A goal, an assist, and another driving performance from a central role

MATCH FACTS

Pennant 43, Torres 45, Gerrard 51

LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Riise; Lucas, Alonso; Pennant (Hyypia 79), Gerrard (Kuyt 67), Benayoun; Torres (Crouch 72).

Subs: Itandje, Babel.

BOOKING: Riise (foul).

NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-4-1-1): Harper; Beye, Faye, Taylor, Enrique; Milner (Geremi 44), Smith, Butt, N'Zogbia; Duff (Martins 58); Owen.

Subs: Forster, Cacapa, Carroll.

REFEREE: Peter Walton. ATT: 44,031.

NEXT GAME: Inter Milan v Liverpool, Champions League first knockout round second leg, tomorrow 7.45pm.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Visit the messageboarcls at www.liverpooldailyposl.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

Fernando Torres goes around Steve Harper to make it 2-0; Steven Gerrard gets in on Fernando Torres's pass to score Liverpool's third goal Pictures ANDREW TEEBAY; Jermaine Pennant (left) opens the scoring Picture: DAVID THOMPSON/PA; Fernando Torres (centre) celebrates with Lucas and Jermaine Pennant
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Mar 10, 2008
Words:1243
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