Liverpool FC 3 Sunderland 0: Reds finally having a ball after a tortuous season
A SIMPLE beach ball has epitomised much of the misery for Liverpool's tortured support this season. Yesterday, however, it helped bring the smiles back on the faces of everyone at Anfield.
As they watched their team comprehensively dismantle Sunderland in thrilling fashion, the home fans momentarily turned their attentions to the visiting dugout and regular nemesis Steve Bruce.
"He's got a head like a beach ball" sang the Kop in unison, prompting an outbreak of laughter throughout the stadium that the Sunderland manager couldn't help but join.
It was that kind of afternoon, the gloom and doom that has weighed heavy over Rafael Benitez's side for much of the campaign lifting in the wake of an invigorating, sparkling attacking performance.
If defeat at Sunderland back in October was a deflating experience, then this resounding triumph will surely breathe fresh air into Liverpool's desperate quest for Champions League qualification.
Indeed, the Wearsiders could have thrown on a hundred of the things yesterday and it still would have made no difference to the final outcome, such was the extent of the Anfield outfit's dominance.
Yet delight and encouragement at his victory - an eighth in succession at home - will no doubt be tinged by a tangible sense of regret.
A futile an exercise it may be, but it is impossible not to speculate what might have been for Liverpool this season had Fernando Torres been available for more of the campaign.
His latest brace means the Spaniard has scored seven goals in his last four games and 20 for the season, a remarkable 18 of which have come in just 21 Premier League appearances. Both were a delight. The first, an individual run that ended with a 25-yard curler into the top corner, will rightly command the spotlight but his second was similarly rewarding, a composed, sumptuous finish over Sunderland goalkeeper Craig Gordon that demonstrated his cool, clinical nature.
No wonder Bruce later described Torres as "unstoppable". With Tottenham Hotspur maintaining their four-point lead with a game in hand, Liverpool know there is little margin for error if they are to pull off a different kind of European comeback from which they have become famed under Benitez.
As against Portsmouth a fortnight earlier, they revived memories of their thrilling championship chase 12 months earlier with a scintillating display of attacking football, free of the shackles that have clearly restricted them in recent months.
Alberto Aquilani played a central role against Pompey but yesterday it was Steven Gerrard moved back into midfield as Benitez successfully helped cajole the skipper into a much-improved display.
The stellar performer, however, was Maxi Rodriguez. The Argentine has taken time to acclimatise to English football, again calling Benitez's transfer policy into question in some quarters, but here his intelligent distribution and creative nous was at the hub of much of Liverpool's play, the home side demonstrating the type of movement, pace, creativity, close control and intricate passing that has too often been conspicuous by its absence.
While Sunderland arrested their winter slide with recent home victories over Bolton Wanderers and Birmingham City, the Black Cats travelled to Anfield in search of their first away Premier League triumph since the opening day back in August.
But there was never any chance of a shock scoreline yesterday with the only surprise being Liverpool managed to score just twice during a superb first-half display, the undoubted highlight of which came in the third minute when Torres posted his annual contender for goal of the season.
After a trademark accurate long kick by Pepe Reina found the striker loitering on the left touchline 40 yards from goal, Torres drifted off the flank, went one-on-one with Sunderland defender Michael Turner, and cut inside the corner of the area before curling an outrageous right-footed shot into the far top corner of Craig Gordon's goal.
Liverpool had signalled their intent in the first minute when Gerrard's right-wing free-kick was flicked on by Dirk Kuyt to Daniel Agger, whose swift volley was parried clear by Gordon.
There was no let-up after Torres's opener. Kieran Richardson got his head in front a goalbound Javier Mascherano volley, the Argentine shot wide from 20 yards and Ryan Babel tested Gordon from range.
Rodriguez's clever passing then started finding holes in Sunderland defence. A neat one-two ended with Gerrard cutting the ball back for Torres to strike first-time narrowly wide from eight yards, shortly before Rodriguez released the Liverpool captain for a shot that was deflected across the face of goal.
The visitors struggled to deal with Gerrard's dead-ball prowess, Agger dragging a shot wide from one corner while a similar delivery to the near-post solicited a brilliant save by Gordon from Rodriguez's glancing header.
A deeper corner was then wastefully directed wide by Agger's head before the inevitable second arrived on 32 minutes from another Gerrard set-piece, his cross only half-cleared by Darren Bent into the path of Johnson to fizz a left-footed effort from 25 yards that took a touch off Turner's leg and flew past Gordon.
That the right-back had been the nearest defender to the infamous beach ball goal in October would have made the sight of his effort being deflected in that bit sweeter.
There was no let up before the interval, Babel missing his kick from Kuyt's lay-off and the ball travelling to Torres who struck the post with his first effort and then scuffed the rebound wide.
Sunderland at least made more of an effort after the break - they had their first shot on target on 55 minutes - but normal service was resumed on the hour when Johnson fed the unmarked Torres who waited before lofting a composed finish over the diving Gordon.
Kuyt shot over after intercepting a Babel pass intended for Rodriguez, but with minds drifting to Thursday's assignment in Lisbon, Liverpool eased down the gears.
It allowed Boudewijn Zenden - given an excellent reception on his return to Anfield - the opportunity to solicit a smart save from Reina with a low 25-yard drive late on.
But the game was up long before then. Thankfully for Liverpool, the same cannot be said for their top-four aspirations if they can replicate this kind of form.