Liverpool about more than just 'The Mario Balotelli Show'
Liverpool bounced back from their defeat to Manchester City with a comfortable 3-0 win over a once-again outgunned Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Much of the prematch focus had been on how Mario Balotelli would fit into Liverpool's up-tempo pressing style and, more specifically, whether he would be able to strike a rapport with Daniel Sturridge. The Italian answered both questions with a lively, hardworking display full of promise for the future, but rather than the much-discussed front two, it was Liverpool's supporting cast that proved to be the match winners.
Midfielders Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen created the opening two goals (scored by the other members of that midfield, Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard from the penalty spot) while the third was delivered in spectacular fashion by left-back Alberto Moreno. That is an encouraging sign for Brendan Rodgers, but he will know better than anyone that Liverpool will go as far this season as their strikers take them, and this was a promising beginning for the Balotelli/Sturridge pairing.
It was almost the dream start for the Italian when Sturridge picked him out on the back post inside two minutes, but his header was kept out by the agile Hugo Lloris. Balotelli wasted another headed opportunity shortly after and snatched at an open goal from 30 yards out when with a bit more composure he could have found Sturridge for a tap-in. Rodgers won't mind that, and as far as first impressions go, Balotelli made a pretty good one with this performance.
He was heavily involved in most Liverpool attacks, held the ball up well and linked up nicely with teammates, but just as importantly, he was never shy in closing down defenders and on several occasions was spotted back defending in his own penalty area. If he keeps this up, there are going to be a lot of disappointed headline writers out there, as "Mario Magnifico" was a model pupil who left the field with his name being belted out by the away end.
However, as Rodgers said in the buildup to the game, this is not "The Mario Balotelli Show." As with last season, there is much more to Liverpool than just one controversial, fiery striker. There is no denying, though, that the rest of the team looks far more effective when it has that explosive, unpredictable star alongside Sturridge. The name of that star has changed, but this was the Liverpool of last season, not the toothless one City overcame with little trouble on Monday.
Balotelli may not be Luis Suarez, but his presence allowed the rest of the side to play the way it did when the Uruguayan was around and Tottenham had no answer to it. Indeed, any problems Liverpool had were almost entirely of their own making.
The clean sheet will be welcomed, but Liverpool rode their luck at times and the central-defensive pair especially looked shaky, settling only when the third goal gave the team breathing room.
Dejan Lovren was brought in to be the leader on defence and due to his ability to play on the left or right of the central two. Martin Skrtel's injury meant he switched from left to right, and it wasn't exactly a smooth transition as he made some silly mistakes that he will be relieved to have gotten away with. He has Simon Mignolet to thank for that, the Belgian keeper making a terrific stop to keep out a shot by Nacer Chadli after Lovren left a huge gap in the middle challenging for a ball that he should have left to Mamadou Sakho. The Croatian dived in recklessly on Emmanuel Adebayor a couple of times after the break too, and on another day those errors could have been costly.
Sakho also had some hairy moments, mostly due to poor distribution that played his team into trouble. Don't let the clean sheet fool you, Liverpool's defence still has a lot of convincing to do.
But we knew that already, so let's concentrate on the positives. Both young Spanish full-backs were excellent, albeit in different ways. Moreno is explosive; Javier Manquillo is steady. Both deserve plenty of credit for their displays at White Hart Lane. It's difficult to believe this was just the second Premier League appearance for the young duo.
Moreno showed flashes of promise against City, but his encouraging display was somewhat overshadowed by the mistake for Stevan Jovetic's first goal. "He's not used to the pace of the Premier League" was the lament afterward. Well, looking at the way he mugged Andros Townsend before flying downfield and drilling an inch perfect shot into the bottom corner, I think we can say he's now up to speed.
He hadn't even trained since turning his ankle in the City game, which made Moreno's display all the more impressive. As well as marauding forward at every opportunity, he was defensively sound too, as was the far more inexperienced Manquillo on the other side. The on-loan Atletico Madrid youngster looks like he's been a Liverpool player for years. He's not flashy, but he's dependable. Not even an early booking unsettled him as he stuck to his task well. With Jose Enrique available once again and Jon Flanagan close to a return, Glen Johnson may find it difficult to get back in the side unless he seriously ups his game.
Although it's still early in the season, Liverpool needed this result, both in terms of the points and also for the self-belief of the side. The 5-0 victory at Spurs last season was the moment when the players and supporters realised just what the team was capable of, and Rodgers will no doubt be hoping for a similar confidence boost after this. This was the Liverpool we saw in the second half of last season, although it's fair to say there is still plenty of room for improvement as they looked at about 70 percent of what they are capable of.
To win 3-0 despite not being at their best bodes well for the weeks and months ahead, and they can now forget about the City loss and move forward (especially after Stoke's shock win at the Etihad).
As for Tottenham, they must hate playing Liverpool. They have conceded 12 goals in their last three meetings and failed to muster a solitary goal themselves. There is one small straw for them to clutch, however: 5-0, 4-0, 3-0, there's a pattern developing there. So cheer up, Spurs fans. At this rate you're on course for a draw next season.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN's Liverpool bloggers and is the founder/editor of the popular LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. He has written three books on the Reds, the latest of which, "We Go Again," tells the story of the 2013-14 season. You can follow him on Twitter @theliverpoolway.