Heading into Sunday afternoons encounter at Anfield, Liverpool were aware that they potentially faced 7 must win league games before the season is out, if they are to maintain their status as a Champions League side. The Reds ticked the fist of those victories off the list in emphatic fashion, as a lacklustre Sunderland were comprehensively beaten.
This win and performance was achieved in a manner which has so often been absent this season. In fact – excluding the previous weekends disappointing defeat at Old Trafford – there has been a noticeable shift towards a more forward thinking, free-flowing attitude in recent games.
The shackles have, to some extent, been released by Benitez. And the manner of this win was somewhat reminiscent of similar displays at this stage of the previous campaign. The goal may be diminished from that of twelve months ago. But is these sort of performances that help to reignite some form of belief. And remind the fans just the brand of football that some of these players are capable of.
Ten goals in the last three home matches is certainly encouraging. Six of those have now come from the boot of the unstoppable Fernando Torres. If anyone required further confirmation as to the ability of the striker – which I am sure they didn’t – then the Spaniard duly obliged here.
Torres’s 19th and 20th goals of the season, sandwiched either side of a Glen Johnson strike, were magnificent for differing reasons. The first an individual, goal of the season contender, crafted out of nothing, The second an intelligent delicate finish, with which Torres demonstrated the sort of composure and vision which truly sets him apart from the rest.
In truth the deadly Spaniard could have had two or three more in match which the Reds thoroughly dominated as an attacking force. Steve Bruce admitted in the aftermath that his side simply couldn’t cope with Torres. I am sure his players would have been reluctant to disagree.
Sunderland appeared a side perhaps lacking in motivation, after a recent upturn in form put some distance between the Wearsiders and the relegation zone. Although a quick glance at the league table suggests that Sunderland may just need one or two more wins before the season is over if they are to maintain their top flight status.
That infamous ‘beach ball’ goal proved to be something of a watershed in both teams seasons. Following that much hailed win, the Black Cats form took a dramatic down turn after an excellent start to the season. As for the Reds, a fourth defeat of the campaign, part due to some rotten bad luck, was merely a signal of what was to come.
However this was a much happier day for Liverpool. The Reds scored three, created an abundance of chances to add more and in doing so produced some free flowing, inventive football. The fare in the opening period was amongst some of the better offered by the hosts all season. Sunderland struggled to match the Reds and barely had a touch in the opening quarter.
Liverpool could, and perhaps should, have been 3-0 to the good within the first 15 minutes. They were able to capitalise on just one of those. The visitors should have heeded their warning when the Reds won a free kick in the opening minute; Dirk Kuyt could only flick Steven Gerrard’s delivery on to Daniel Agger, whose volley forced a solid save from Craig Gordon.
Moments later Liverpool were ahead. Torres creating and finishing a stunning solo goal. The striker cleverly drifted out to the left of the area to receive Pepe Reina’s long ball, exposing centre back Michael Turner. Torres bamboozled Turner before cutting inside a sending a curling effort, which none expected, beyond Gordon and under the cross from the angle.
Having taken the early initiative, Liverpool proceeded to put Sunderland to the sword. Gerrard drove into the penalty area and cut back for Torres to shot wide first time, when he probably would have expected to score. Before Agger had a couple of further efforts, Gerrard’s shot was saved by the imperious Gordon and Kieran Richardson repelled Javier Mascherano’s drive. The Reds threatening to end the contest before it had begun.
Benitez opted to withdraw Brazilian, Lucas from his starting line up. With Gerrard dropping into midfield alongside Mascherano. As with the recent win against Portsmouth, when Alberto Aquilani came into the side, this move gave the Reds a much greater balance in the middle of the pitch.
Gerrard seems to have struggled at times this season in the more advanced role behind Torres – a position he has played so effectively in the past. But moving him deeper seemed to breath new life into the captain, who was able to use his trademark runs from deep to greater effect.
Liverpool were now playing with a confidence which belied their current precarious league position. And it was Maxi Rodriguez who was at the heart of much of what was good. Some had questioned Rafa’s faith in the Argentine winger following his January transfer. But Maxi’s improvement of late has been tangible.
His excellent vision and passing were a particular asset here – bringing those around him into play. And Maxi almost grabbed his first goal for his new club later in the first half. The away side were struggling at times from set pieces, and Gerrard’s delivery to the near post was glanced on by Rodriguez; forcing a fine save from Gordon.
A long overdue second goal did arrive on 32 minutes. Full backs Glen Johnson and Emiliano Insua were others who showed considerable improvement here, especially going forward. And it was Johnson who scored the goal – his first since August. The ball came back to the England right-back just outside the area, and his drive took a slight touch off Turner as it flew past Gordon.
The Reds somewhat took their foot of the pedal in the second half. Particularly after Torres had added a third on the hour mark. Johnson added an assist to his goal, laying the ball into the path of Torres rather than shooting. Torres intelligently delayed his finish, before calmly lifting the ball beyond the Sunderland ‘keeper.
Sunderland, who had finally called Reina into action for the first time early in the second half, produced their best effort towards the end. Substitute and former Red, Boudewijn Zenden’s shot from outside the box was palmed away by Reina.
Benitez opted to remove some of his star assets with upcoming battles in mind. With an important three points already long assured and Champions League qualification still very much a possibility.
Man of the Match
Two goals and an all round top class and clinical display from the Spaniard. What we could have done with him fir for the whole season!