Brendan Rodgers warned Liverpool’s title rivals his team are back in the groove after they marked Mario Balotelli’s debut with a scintillating 3-0 win at Tottenham.
Balotelli was supposed to steal the spotlight on his return to the Premier League, but the flamboyant Italy striker had to play second fiddle to new teammates Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson on Sunday.
Sterling scored Liverpool’s opening goal early in the first half and delivered a sparkling display at the top of the midfield diamond formation Rodgers employed to overwhelm Tottenham’s fragile defence.
Balotelli’s strike partner Sturridge was a constant menace, while Henderson covered almost every blade of grass in midfield in a typically energetic showing.
Second-half goals from Steven Gerrard and Alberto Moreno sealed the rout, capping the kind of vibrant performance that became Liverpool’s hallmark as they went within touching distance of winning the Premier League last season before Steven Gerrard’s crucial slip against Chelsea gifted the title to Manchester City.
Now, despite the departure of star striker Luis Suarez to Barcelona, Rodgers’ team look to have got over last season’s title-race meltdown and the Reds boss believes they will be among the main contenders to win the English crown once again.
“I thought we were excellent. It was an outstanding performance,” Rodgers said.
“We have risen to every challenge since I’ve been here. It was the same last year when people wondered if we could keep it up. The beauty of this group is they are very humble.
“We clicked back to where we were last season. That was good to see, I think people will enjoy watching us this season.”
Balotelli offered glimpses of his vast talent with some neat combinations with Sterling and Sturridge during his 61-minute debut, but Rodgers knows the former AC Milan forward has much more to offer once he gets comfortable at Anfield.
He impressed Rodgers with his willingness to tackle the defensive side of the game, even marking at a corner for the first time in his career, according to the Reds boss.
But the temperamental Balotelli’s place in the Liverpool hierarchy was underlined when the Reds were awarded a second half penalty.
Balotelli – something of spot-kick expert – might have hoped to be given the chance to score his first goal, but captain Steven Gerrard is Rodgers’ preferred penalty taker and he swept his shot past Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris before exchanging a joke with his new striker.
“He’s scored 26 and only missed one, so he’s got every right to be asking about taking penalties. But Steven Gerrard is an excellent penalty taker and he showed great composure again,” Rodgers said.
“Mario’s a good guy. If you take away some of the circus that surrounds him and treat him like an adult, it’ll bring the best out of him.
“He’s now at an age where he has to show maturity and I’m giving him responsibility.”
While Rodgers was keen to accentuate the positive with Balotelli, he reserved special praise for 19-year-old England midfielder Sterling.
“We’ve tried to develop Raheem into a player that can start inside and also play wide. You’ve seen the flexibility from him today,” Rodgers said.
“It’s important for me they have that intelligence to play in a number of systems. For a kid of 19, he is excellent.”
Ironically, Sterling fluffed his chance to score an early contender for goal of the season when his dribble past four defenders ended with a woeful finish, prompting Rodgers to joke: “Raheem ran into the box like [Tottenham legend] Ricky Villa and finished it like [comedian] Ricky Gervais”.
Tottenham’s new manager Mauricio Pochettino, frustrated by the first defeat of his reign, said: “We are very disappointed with the result.
“We competed well in the first half, then in the second half we conceded a very soft penalty at a key moment.”