Torres strikes on return

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LIVERPOOL, March 1 – Fernando Torres marked his first English Premier League start of 2010 by hitting the winner as Liverpool triumphed 2-1 in a bruising encounter with Blackburn at Anfield on Sunday.Torres has endured an injury-interrupted season but the Spain striker made a telling contribution as Rafa Benitez’s side maintained their push to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Keith Andrews scored a shock equaliser for Rovers from the penalty spot to cancel out Steven Gerrard’s 10th goal of the season before Torres struck in the 44th minute – his 13th Premier League goal of the season – to leave Liverpool sixth in the table, one point behind Tottenham and Manchester City.

The pressure on Benitez’s side to win had been increased by Tottenham’s 2-1 victory over Liverpool’s city rivals Everton earlier in the day.

Thursday’s excursion to Romania to face Unirea Urziceni in the Europa League round of 32 appeared to have taken its toll on Benitez’s team. The Reds won 3-1 in the second leg for a 4-1 victory on aggregate.

Not even the presence of Torres could inspire his team-mates in the opening exchanges as Blackburn shot out of the blocks, the mid-table visitors going close to opening the scoring four times alone in the first 15 minutes.

Liverpool had recorded clean sheets in six of their previous seven outings but with Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano acting as emergency right-back and both Martin Skrtel and Sotirios Kyrgiakos unavailable, the back four looked anything but solid.

The home team’s sluggish start was typified in the 16th minute when Lucas was caught in possession by Morten Gamst Pedersen, who threaded a dangerous pass to Mikola Kalinic inside the Liverpool penalty area.

But Liverpool fans breathed a sigh of relief after the Croatian striker was unable to find the target from an acute angle before Gerrard broke the deadlock with his side’s first real attack.

The England midfielder took his goal tally for the season into double figures after a clever move involving Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun. Gerrard lifted the atmosphere at a subdued Anfield with a neat finish after gliding past Christopher Samba.

Liverpool’s 4-0 win in this fixture last year was overshadowed when both managers became embroiled in a spat after Sam Allardyce took exception to a Benitez hand gesture he interpreted as signalling that the game was all over when Liverpool had taken a 2-0 lead.

Benitez tried to clarify the issue by claiming that he was jokingly telling his players not to listen to him after they had ignored his orders and gone on to score.

Allardyce’s anger still simmers, though, and ahead of this game he declared that Liverpool’s recent run of hard-fought results had been achieved with the same uncompromising style Benitez had shown last year.

But the only hand gestures coming from Benitez this time were borne out of frustration as Liverpool struggled to build on their lead and found themselves back on level terms five minutes before half-time.

Liverpool had been threatening to press the self-destruct button all afternoon when defender Jamie Carragher needlessly handled inside his own area which allowed Andrews to equalise from the penalty spot.

But Blackburn have established a reputation as notorious poor travellers this season and they found themselves behind again in the 44th minute, Torres sliding in to connect with Maxi Rodruguez’s low cross into the six-yard area.

It was one setback too many for Blackburn to come back from, the visitors finishing a crunching game with five players booked.

Steven Nzonzi was fortunate not to be shown a straight red card after shoving Lucas to the floor in the 50th minute while El Hadji Diouf, who was later booked, became embroiled in a heated exchange with former team-mate Gerrard after Kalinic had gone down too easily for Liverpool’s liking in the penalty area.

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