Wonderful display keeps Champions League hopes alive – but can Reds keep it up?

THE race that was supposed to be over seven days ago suddenly looks as if it is just beginning.

When Liverpool skulked out of Old Trafford last Sunday, deflated like a cheap beach ball, the manner in which they allowed Manchester United to breeze past them suggested mounting a push for Champions League qualification would be a bridge too far.

What a difference a week makes. Having received a fillip with a number of results going their way, the manner in which Liverpool dismantled Sunderland yesterday suggested Champions League qualification is back in their grasp.

Gaining revenge for one of their most galling defeats of the campaign – that wretched beach ball at The Stadium of Light will never be forgotten – the Reds turned on the style to remind a wider audience that it would be foolish to write them off.

Given Liverpool’s ability to be excellent one moment but erratic the next, you cannot say for sure they will creep into the top four but their hopes of doing so will vastly improve if they keep playing like this – and Fernando Torres maintains his appetite for destruction.

This 12th home win of the campaign was not a one-man show by any means, as there were starring roles from the outstanding Maxi Rodriguez, a reformed Ryan Babel and Daniel Agger, who showed why those comparisons with Alan Hansen have been made.

With the efforts of those three, combined with input of several others, Liverpool would have eventually eased past a Sunderland side that offered next to nothing and closed the gap on fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur.

But when you have a player of Torres’ calibre operating at the peak of his powers, you start to believe anything is possible; the manner of his recent performances – seven goals in four games – have given Liverpool hope and belief just when they need it most.

With their position in the table precarious, Liverpool did not dare to fail here yet that was never going to be an option once Torres made his mark on the contest, setting the wheels in motion on a performance to lift the spirits.

It was all triggered by an electric start. Agger’s thumping first-minute volley served notice of Liverpool’s intent but the assembled gallery did not need to wait long for the deadlock to be broken and it was done with a moment of breathtaking skill.

Taking possession in his stride, a jink and a feint from Torres left Michael Turner in a spin and gave him an angle to unleash a shot that rose and dipped before bending into Craig Gordon’s net.

You can sometimes take it for granted that Torres is a Liverpool player but when he produces such flashes of genius, it serves as a reminder that the club are blessed to have him – and why many of their rivals would obliterate the bank to sign him.

Torres, was in the mood to cause mayhem but it was reassuring to see that frame of mind was shared by the collective and with better fortune, the game could have been over as a contest within 20 minutes.

Agger spurned two further chances, Rodriguez had a glancing header beaten away by Gordon, Torres blazed wide after an exhilarating move involving Rodriguez, Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard, while the captain also went close.

Any fears that Liverpool would be made to pay for their profligacy, tough, were soon assuaged when Glen Johnson lashed in from 20 yards – via a deflection from Turner – to give the scoreline a realistic appearance.

As thrilling as the jet-propelled start was to see, there was also an element of frustration, too. The carefree way in which they were playing, coupled with the confidence that was so evidently coursing them, suggested they were gunning for the title.

This is the time of the year, remember, when those pursuing the ultimate prize go into overdrive; look at what Chelsea did to Aston Villa on Saturday and what Liverpool did to the same opposition 12 months ago.

Some of the one-touch passing and the speed of movement was a joy to behold and Sunderland were utterly powerless to prevent it.

Everywhere you looked, men in red shirts were excelling. Agger’s defending was effortless, Johnson galloped forward at every opportunity, Gerrard drove his team forward with purpose and then there was Rodriguez.

After cutting a bewildered figure in the opening weeks of his Liverpool career, looking like a little boy lost, Rodriguez has blossomed during this past month.

Central to everything positive Liverpool did as an attacking force, the way in which he passed and moved was simple but totally effective.

He and Torres have an understanding that stretches back to their days playing for Atletico Madrid but if Rodriguez is bringing the best out of Liverpool’s number nine – Torres was “unplayable” according to Steve Bruce – he is also galvanising others.

Kuyt, for instance, enjoyed his best performance for a number of months, having the confidence to try back flicks, always showing himself to be a willing outlet and running himself to a standstill.

On the hour Torres nonchalantly lifted his second of the game into the Anfield Road end net following good work by Johnson and the only surprise after that was neither he nor Liverpool added to their tally.

No matter. Three points had long since been secured and the reverberations of this performance will have been felt in North London and Manchester – Tottenham and City will have problems if these standards are maintained from here on in.

“When we play like this, we can beat anyone,” Torres remarked afterwards and he is right. The only problem, however, is they are capable of losing to anyone as well and it remains to be seen whether they can be consistent or consistently inconsistent.

Should it be the former, fourth place is definitely achievable but, perhaps, next week at Birmingham City we will discover if this race will go the distance.

LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua; Gerrard (El Zhar 81), Mascherano; Rodriguez, Kuyt (Aquilani 71), Babel; Torres (Ngog 78). SUBS: Cavalieri (GK), Benayoun, Kyrgiakos, Lucas.

SUNDERLAND (4-4-2): Gordon; Bardsley, Ferdinand, Turner, Richardson; Malbranque (Jones 52), Cattermole (da Silva 46), Cana, Henderson (Zenden 79); Campbell, Bent. SUBS: Carson (GK), Kilgallon, Benjani, Liddle. Bookings: Bent.


REFEREE: Phil Dowd.

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