Liverpool 3 Sunderland 0: match report
Springtime, and the shackles are off. Two goals from Fernando Torres, a fortuitous strike from Glen Johnson and a performance full of verve and panache gave a free-styling, freewheeling Liverpool, for so long laboured and unlovable, victory over Sunderland and cast Rafael Benitez's side back into the thick of the race for the Champions League. It was the Spanish international, though, who was the undoubted star of the show, from the moment just three minutes in when he produced the sort of flash of inspiration of which so few are capable and which, in his absence thanks to persistent injury troubles, Liverpool have so sadly lacked for so long. In front of Anfield's attacking aristocracy Messrs Rush, Aldridge, Dalglish and Fowler were all present Torres picked up Pepe Reina's long punt deep on the left and flashed inside the flailing Michael Turner with a dip of the shoulder and a twirl of his white boots before curling the ball above and beyond the despairing dive of Craig Gordon and into the far corner of the Kop goal. It was a moment of such virtuosity that the Spanish international's sixth strike in four games was greeted with a heart-beat of stunned silence before 43,121 inside Anfield rose as one to acclaim a master at work. The striker's stardust, it seems, is contagious. The tone set, Liverpool swarmed forward, in sixes and sevens Sunderland were at similar numbers defensively picking their way through their visitors' teetering backline with an array of back-heels, stepovers, their passing patterns intricate, their imagination fired. Torres should have scored a second after 15 minutes, the striker sweeping Steven Gerrard's cut-back just wide. The Liverpool captain went close, too, latching on to an impudent flick from the outstanding Maxi Rodriguez and finding only Turner's knee between him and the goal. Javier Mascherano twice saw shots blocked, Daniel Agger went close from three corners and Gordon produced a remarkable point blank save to deny Rodriguez his first Liverpool goal after a clever near-post corner. So abundant were the chances that few would have begrudged Benitez's side a slice of good fortune for their second, Turner deflecting Glen Johnson's shot past his own goalkeeper. Not quite a beach ball, true, but a modicum of revenge, enough to suggest that the fates are not currently as unkindly aligned to Benitez's men as they were in that bleak autumn. How Sunderland, punch-drunk, must have prayed for the sweet relief of the half-time whistle. It arrived moments after Torres had struck the post and fired wide from the subsequent rebound, an unwelcome reminder that 45 minutes of purgatory remained. Before that, though, the ire of Steve Bruce, his players emerging ashen-faced from what was no doubt a colourful, and extended, half-time team-talk. To the Sunderland manager's credit, it made some difference. Liverpool were not so dominant after the break, though that, in truth, may have owed as much to their hosts' overindulgence. Torres added a third, quite brilliantly, delaying his conversion of Johnson's pass enough to fool Gordon, but Benitez's side could not quite maintain their intensity, or their invention. True, Babel twice went close, Dirk Kuyt fired over when well-placed and substitute David Ngog scuffed an injury-time opportunity to add a fourth, but Liverpool did little but go through the motions. After all, little else was required. Reina made his first save, from a Boudewijn Zenden shot, in the 90th minute.
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