Luis Suarez scored twice to help Liverpool romp to an emphatic 3-0 victory over Sunderland at Anfield.
There was much on show to give Liverpool fans encouragement for a better year ahead as their side cut a poor Sunderland defense wide open time and again with Suarez, supported by Gerrard, the prime architect of the visitors’ downfall.
Suarez set up Raheem Sterling for a fine opener, before the Uruguayan struck either side of half-time to put the result beyond doubt. Sunderland had their chances in the opening period, but offered little resistance after the break and were somewhat fortunate that the score line was not more emphatic.
As for Liverpool, manager Brendan Rodgers must now be hoping that his side can finally find some consistency to push toward the top four after back-to-back 3-0 victories.
In truth, though, Liverpool will rarely enjoy an easier 90 minutes than Sunderland provided on Wednesday evening.
Both sides had struggled in front of goal this season, but there was a surprising openness to the match in the early stages. Stewart Downing had already forced a fine save by Simon Mignolet form a free-kick, before the opening goal arrived 19 minutes in.
Suarez picked the ball up with his back to goal on the halfway line and, with Sunderland’s defense poorly positioned, he just helped the ball over the top to Sterling racing clear. The young winger showed admirable composure as he waited for Mignolet to race off his line before calmly side-footing the ball over the goalkeeper’s head and into the net.
It took just seven minutes for Suarez to add a second, but by that stage Sunderland had already missed the best of three gilt-edge chances. Some neat interplay saw Steven Fletcher thread the ball through to James McClean but the Irishman dragged his left-footed shot inches wide of the upright.
They were quickly made to pay as their defense was once again found wanting. Played through by Gerrard, Suarez was barged off the ball by Carlos Cuellar, but although the assistant was flagging for a foul, the referee wisely played advantage when the Spaniard slipped to the turf. That allowed Suarez to cut in on goal from the right and, ignoring his teammates in the middle, strike with the outside of his foot into the net off the legs of Mignolet.
Downing came close to making it 3-0 as he just failed to get his foot around the ball at the far post, but then followed two further openings for Sunderland.
McClean was again culpable as he shot tamely straight at Pepe Reina when well positioned, before Matthew Kilgallon wasted an even better opportunity as he volleyed too close to Reina when unmarked at the far post six yards out and with Fletcher free in the middle.
O’Neil tried to increase his side’s attacking options as he brought on Frazier Campbell at the break, but it had the reverse effect. Sunderland’s midfield had already been outnumbered in the opening period as they featured two orthodox wingers and converted wide man Sebastian Larsson in the middle and the issue was never addressed.
Sterling should have grabbed himself a second in the 50th minute after Suarez produced a delightful touch to turn a Gerrard pass into his path. On this occasion Sterling got his finish all wrong and the ball went harmlessly across goal.
It would not be long before the seal was put on the result. Gerrard was allowed a criminal amount of time deep inside his own half to pick through a wide open Sunderland defense with a trademark long pass to find Suarez, who controlled the ball on his chest before finishing coolly past Mignolet.
The match became a training exercise for Liverpool in the remaining 35 minutes and the home side really should have added to their tally. Mignolet deserves credit for keeping the score down as he tipped over after Johnson deflected Gerrard’s volley on goal and denied Suarez a hat-trick from close range.
Liverpool also had two goals correctly ruled out for offside, but on the day they announced the signing of Daniel Sturridge, the Reds will be more than happy with their start to 2013.