LIVERPOOL, March 19- Fernando Torres struck twice as Liverpool stormed back to overturn a first leg deficit against Lille to book their place in the last eight of the Europa League at Anfield on Thursday.Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, Steven Gerrard marked his 300th appearance as captain by levelling the scores on aggregate from the penalty spot.
And Torres’s first goal in European competition this season, witnessed by Argentina coach Diego Maradona, doubled his side’s lead early in the second half before the Spanish striker made it 3-0 in the last minute.
The 3-1 aggregate success keeps Liverpool’s season alive as Rafael Benitez’s stuttering side battle to avoid a fourth successive season without winning silverware.
Albert Riera was nowhere to be seen at Anfield after his outspoken attack on Benitez.
The Spanish international, who has not completed 90 minutes for Liverpool since last September, said in an interview with Spanish radio that the Merseyside club were a "sinking ship" after a poor season and claimed that compatriot Benitez did not talk to him.
Yet Riera’s rant did not affect his team-mates as Liverpool got the early breakthrough they required to draw level on aggregate.
There were just seven minutes on the clock when Lucas crashed to the ground following a challenge by Adil Ramey in front of the Kop and Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli pointed to the spot.
Television replays suggested the hosts had been fortunate to be awarded the penalty but Gerrard, on his landmark appearance as captain, made no mistake from the spot.
The England midfielder’s ninth goal for his club this season brought Benitez’s team level on aggregate yet Liverpool had been here before this season against French opposition.
Just five months ago, Yossi Benayoun had given his side the lead against Lyon in the Champions League group stage.
But it all ended in tears for Benitez’s side as the French were allowed to score two late goals, Argentina’s Cesar Delgado breaking Liverpool hearts as the French side won a dramatic game 2-1.
Lille were stunned to find themselves behind so early but Liverpool still had work to do.
Torres burst into the area after evading a couple of tackles before running into a dead end.
And full-back Glen Johnson spurned a great chance when he shot straight at keeper Mickael Landreau in the 24th minute.
Liverpool’s defence has come under fire for the number of goals it has conceded this term but their defenders are certainly not shy going for goal.
Daniel Agger was next to try his luck, the Danish centre-back’s header saved on the line by Landreau following Gerrard’s corner.
The busy Lucas was then denied by the keeper before Jose Reina rescued the hosts in the 33rd minute.
Eden Hazard, who scored the late winner in the first leg, found himself clean through on goal after the Liverpool defence had been sliced open.
But, in an entertaining first half, Reina kept his composure to produce a stunning stop and deny Lille a crucial away goal.
Liverpool were playing as though their season depended on it, which it did, and shortly before the break, Torres directed a header agonisingly wide of the target following a pin-point 41st minute cross by Dirk Kuyt.
The second-half began in the same manner as the first – with Lille conceding a goal to leave the hosts staring at a place in the quarter-finals.
A glaring error by the hapless Rami, who failed to cut out a long punt forward by Ryan Babel, allowed Torres to power his way into the Lille area before directing the ball past the oncoming keeper for his 16th goal of the campaign.
It then took a dreadful 74th minute miss by substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to make sure the home side progressed.
Aubameyang had only been on the pitch a few moments when he was presented with a glorious to equalise.
But to the astonishment of his teammates, and Liverpool’s relief, he fired over from close range before Torres had the last word.