Fabio Capello believes Fernando Torres is the best striker in the world, though he did not look it here. He did sink Sunderland and claim three opening-day points Liverpool barely deserved with a wonder goal seven minutes from time, however, and that is all anyone can ask of a world-class striker.
To the enviable talents fully displayed last season and in the European Championships in the summer can now be added the knack of appearing to sleepwalk through a game before bursting into life with one decisive moment. The match was petering out to a draw and Sunderland had no reason to suspect imminent danger when Torres collected Xabi Alonso's shrewd pass just outside the centre circle, took a couple of strides towards goal and shot past Craig Gordon from 25 yards out. It was cruel on Sunderland, though Roy Keane, for one, was not surprised.
'We're only talking about one moment, but that's all top players need,' the Sunderland manager said. 'We worked hard and played really well, but it was a goal as soon as it left his foot. That's why he cost a few bob. That's why the Premiership is the toughest league in the world. That's life.'
Sunderland began purposefully, with Steed Malbranque and Kieran Richardson showing early enterprise and the front-runners harrying Liverpool so successfully that Pepe Reina was bombarded with backpasses. El-Hadji Diouf had a difficult chance in the opening five minutes, getting behind the Liverpool defence, but finding the ball would not come down quickly enough.
There was little sign of a partnership between Torres and Robbie Keane in the first half - in fact, there was little sign of either player as Liverpool swept the ball from wing to wing, but struggled to find a pass to outwit the Sunderland defence in the final third. The visitors' first shot took half an hour to arrive and was delivered with the usual power by Steven Gerrard. Trouble was it lacked the usual accuracy.
Sunderland were responsible for some of the neatest interpassing of the first half, though perhaps significantly it was the core of players imported from Tottenham who were usually involved. Diouf showed moments of promise but the usual moments of perplexity and petulance as well, while Daryl Murphy showed why Roy Keane needs Kenwyne Jones back as soon as possible. Murphy put himself about well and made himself available as a target, though rather than sticking to him the ball tended to bounce off, sometimes by distances of yards. Sunderland still do not carry enough of a goal threat, as Keane is all too aware, and the longer the game went on the more likely it appeared that Liverpool would simply let them tire themselves out before trying to pinch a winner.
Liverpool brought on Alonso for Damien Plessis at half-time, pleasing the travelling supporters who had been chanting the Spain midfielder's name all afternoon, perhaps with a view to persuading Rafa Benítez not to sell him. His introduction immediately brought a crisper brand of wing-to-wing passing, even if it could do little to alter the fact that neither Dirk Kuyt nor Yossi Benayoun offered any actual penetration on the flanks.
Sunderland's chance to frighten Liverpool arrived in the 54th minute and Diouf missed it. Murphy crossed low from the left and found Diouf ideally placed at the far post, but instead of a decisive finish the striker could manage what amounted only to a pass back to Reina. It was exactly the sort of chance Diouf needs to be grabbing if he is to be of any use to his new club.
Danny Collins is not a regular centre-half and Phil Bardsley is a right-back rather than a left, yet considering they were up against a £50m strikeforce Sunderland's patched up back line did all that could be asked of them. They survived a scare 15 minutes from time when Collins stuck a boot out and made a Kuyt shot rather more difficult for Gordon to deal with, but the goalkeeper produced a one-handed stop on the line and neither Torres nor Keane could follow up. Alonso came as close to scoring as anyone with a shot from halfway that had Gordon briefly worried, before Torres applied the coup de grace from his pass to leave Sunderland three points worse off than this time last year. Keane had just been substituted, so the partnership has not properly got off the ground, but Liverpool are up and running.
'The second half was much better for us,' Benítez said, after explaining he initially left Alonso out to protect a dead leg. 'But the difference, I feel, was Torres.' Sunderland might like to take that as a compliment.
Craig Gordon, Phil Bardsley, Danny Collins, Nyron Nosworthy, Pascal Chimbonda, Kieran Richardson, Steed Malbranque (Carlos Edwards, 73), Andy Reid, Teemu Tainio (Dean Whitehead, 57), Daryl Murphy, El Hadji Diouf (Michael Chopra, 81)
Jose Manuel Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Andrea Dossena, Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Damien Plessis (Xabi Alonso, 46), Yossi Benayoun (Fabio Aurelio, 81), Dirk Kuyt, Robbie Keane (Nabil El Zhar, 77), Fernando Torres
Yellow cards: Arbeloa & El Zhar
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