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Aug 31, 2014

Three Points: Tottenham vs. Liverpool

LONDON -- A trio of thoughts from Liverpool's 3-0 win vs. Tottenham on Sunday in the Premier League.

1. Liverpool coast past Tottenham again

This was an apparent return to last season for both sides, right down to a repeat of the heavy margin. Tottenham again struggled in a game against elite opposition, with a rampant Liverpool again tearing them apart. In the last three meetings between these teams, Brendan Rodgers' side have put five past Andre Villas-Boas' Spurs, four past Tim Sherwood's and now three past Mauricio Pochettino's.

A crueller voice might say that those numbers represent progress of sorts, but there is also some truth in it. Spurs were not as bad on Sunday as the score line suggests, and the reality was much more complicated. That's not to say, however, that Liverpool were not good or not deserving winners. They most certainly were the better side from start to finish.

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Their performance also began to suggest that they will not be much worse a side without Luis Suarez. Having looked a little sluggish and not quite so fluid in attack in the opening two games of their campaign, this was a glorious return to last season's devastating movement in attack.

That is the true benefit of a player as talented as Mario Balotelli beyond the clichés, and he also adds a muscularity that had been missing. You only had to look at the way he held off some challenges. Even in one in which he was flattened -- a debatable tackle from Eric Dier -- the look with which he responded said it all. Balotelli, for his part, kept going on with his business, and so did Liverpool.

It is open to question whether they can reach last season's heights, but Rodgers' men continue to look very much like a top-four team. This was another five-star performance against Tottenham.

2. Balotelli's promising debut

Liverpool may have been excellent and Tottenham dismally disappointing, but the centre of attention was aptly somewhere in between: Balotelli was neither at his best nor his worst. That, however, is arguably just as beneficial to him in the long term.

As could be seen from all the hype and hysteria surrounding his signing from AC Milan, the Italian is one of the curious modern strikers who generally only polarises opinion to unrealistically extreme degrees. He is supposedly either wondrous or totally wasteful, on top form or uninterested.

Mario Balotelli played for 61 minutes before being replaced by Lazar Markovic.

Sunday's display was far closer to the reality. Balotelli perhaps should have scored twice with two early free headers, but he mostly had a good and productive game, which reflected the broader range of his talents.

If his finishing was not great, his link-up play was high quality, particularly in the case of one delightfully crafted chipped ball to Raheem Sterling.

It was also his interchanging and overlapping with the young English winger that may be the most productive element of this signing. The movement of the duo along with Daniel Sturridge was glorious, bringing back a dynamic rotation that was gloriously frequent last season. Balotelli may have reopened so much debate around his career, but he may have also reopened Liverpool's attack. He departed the pitch after an encouraging hour, with three points on the board for Liverpool.

It wasn't a brilliant debut, but it was hardly a bad one.

3. Reality check for Tottenham

That's only one way to put this result. After four straight wins at home and abroad against forgiving opposition, they were well beaten by a top-class side.

Pochettino may have previously had a hugely respectable record against the top teams and -- prior to this game -- a 2-1 lead in his own head-to-head with Rodgers, but on this day, he couldn't arrest some of Tottenham's deeper issues. There is evidence that that will come, but for the moment, this was much more like his last meeting with the Liverpool boss. Back in March, Southampton attempted to push high, only to be ripped apart on the break.

Spurs themselves were nowhere near as good as Pochettino's former side were on that occasion, but suffered from the same problem in that they were hugely susceptible to the away side's speed, particularly that of the live wire Sterling. The teenager was excellent, and scored the opening goal that conditioned the entire game.

It was entirely relevant that both the opening strike and the clincher came from Liverpool exploiting that major weakness. It is the danger of playing a high defensive line if a team is still in the early stage of developing it, and are not yet completely comfortable with it.

Tottenham were caught by the movement of Sterling, Balotelli and Jordan Henderson (who provided an exquisite game-opening pass) for the first goal, and then were exploited for the third when Alberto Moreno careened through their half of the pitch all too easily before making a difficult finish look elementary.

The second goal was perhaps the key, though. Spurs had still been in the game but the concession of a soft -- but fair -- penalty after Eric Dier pulled back Joe Allen was completely avoidable. Things might have looked very different had they avoided that so soon after halftime. Instead, their existing weaknesses in defence were emphasised and Liverpool brilliantly exploited them.

All of that in itself, however, is pointed. Unlike last season, Tottenham were not completely unravelled by Liverpool's force alone, and even more importantly, they did not collapse. They still kept coming, still tried to make a game of it, which is a big difference from either game against the same opposition last season.

There should still be huge hope around Pochettino's regime, even if this game illustrated a better future was never going to come about as quickly as the opening wins suggested.

Miguel Delaney

Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called "Stuttgart to Saipan" (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.

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