Sunderland 0-1 Liverpool
And so the annual quest begins. Equipped with a £19million striker, Liverpool began their bid to end their 19-year wait for a league title. They did so with three points thanks to a still costlier forward. Fernando Torres' clinical strike was only a surprise in that it was preceded by an unpromising performance, when greater attention was focused on his ally attack. Instead, the outcome was one that is becoming familiar for Robbie Keane.
The Irishman has found himself overshadowed recently. First there was Liverpool's in-fighting which, like the Hundred Years War, is going on for rather longer than expected. Then, for Keane's entire 77-minute showing at the Stadium of Light, he was outperformed by a Liverpool forward of an earlier vintage, Gerard Houllier's costly folly El-Hadji Diouf. And in the eventual outcome, of course, Torres became the headline act with a goal that was against the run of play, but hardly against type. A shot arrowed inside the near post from 20 yards gave Craig Gordon no chance and Liverpool hope that, finally, this will be their year.
Listless in Liege and sub-standard in Sunderland, they nevertheless begin the Premier League with a victory. They did so through Torres' capacity to turn average performances into the desired result. He excelled last season with Steven Gerrard tucked in behind him. Now Keane is charged with supplanting the captain as Torres' partner in crime.
History indicates it should work. Liverpool's finest strike partnerships have often contained the pairing of the lone frontrunner and the support act, drifting into deeper positions to create. The sight of the more inventive No. 7 aiming for the predatory No. 9, lurking on the last shoulder of the defender, may reminder supporters of a certain age of Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush.
While Torres and Gerrard were often found on the same wavelength last season, much like Keane and Dimitar Berbatov, there were fewer signs of an instinctive understanding between the new couple. The Irishman attempted a few flicks, some of which came off, and showed a propensity to drift out to the right flank. Yet for such an energetic performer, he was unusually anonymous.
He is the latest recipient of the unfortunate cliché, the final piece of the jigsaw, applied annually to the player supposed to deliver the title to Anfield. The man so described in 2002, Diouf, is now lining up for Sunderland, and he was fully involved. The home side's chances were either created by, or fell to, the Senegalese. Prominent, and skilful as he was, his finishes were tame, providing a reminder that the man who looked the likeliest match-winner has an unimpressive goal record.
Controversy has followed Diouf throughout his career. Now it tails Rafa Benitez. He awoke to rumours that he was on the verge of resigning. He refuted them, saying: 'My commitment with the club is 100 percent - with the fans, with the players and with the club in general. My family is happy and I want to win trophies. The supporters are amazing.'
What followed may be construed as an attack on Rick Parry. Certainly it suggested that, though not mentioned by name, Gareth Barry remains on the agenda and the Liverpool manager believes he has the funds to sign him. 'I was in contact with Tom Hicks and he told me that we had enough and we have enough money,' he insisted. 'If we sell one or two players, I will be able to sign one player. I know I have the support of one of the owners. We have to be quicker [in the transfer market], so we will save more money and we sign the targets we have.'
Others have not concluded that, but Benitez can polarise opinions. This was a game where he probably should be praised, but could be faulted. Co-owners George Gillett and Hicks are reported to have questioned his judgment, at least in the matter of Barry's fee. Where Torres is concerned, it was impeccable. And at the Stadium of Light, as is often the case, different conclusions can be drawn. The selection of Sami Hyypia ahead of Daniel Agger would have made more sense had Kenwyne Jones been available to lead the Sunderland attack.
The first half illustrated the need for Barry. It also, at least while he remains at Villa Park, emphasised the importance of Xabi Alonso. The choice of Damien Plessis instead of the man Liverpool appear to value at around £20million was quixotic, though Benitez conveniently claimed the Spaniard was less than fully fit and his deputy incurred a knock after 45 minutes. It was an error swiftly rectified, after a first half where the Frenchman's inexperience told and Sunderland's superiority in midfield was apparent. Alonso's arrival changed the game, but the alternative explanation is that he should have started anyway.
He lent Liverpool a control they lacked beforehand - indeed it was notable how Steven Gerrard became prominent after the Spaniard's introduction - and attempted his trademark strike, the 60-yard lob that almost embarrassed Gordon. Tellingly, it was his pass that led to the goal, made in Spain and scored in Sunderland.
'The amount of goals that are scored in the last 15 minutes in the Premiership, the first 75 can go out of the window,' rued Roy Keane, whose team specialised in late goals last season. 'Performance wise? I'm delighted. When Liverpool get on the bus, they'll be glad to see the back of us. That's a good sign.'
At Anfield, meanwhile, the signs are rather more confusing, at least where Messrs Hicks, Gillett, Parry and Benitez are concerned.
• MAN OF THE MATCH: Xabi Alonso - Liverpool fans chanted the Spaniard's name in the pre-season friendly against Lazio. Such was his influence today that his popularity should increase. This was an impressive job application to keep his current post. Jamie Carragher proved predictably resilient and both Diouf and Nyron Nosworthy performed well for Sunderland, Alonso's cameo earns him this vote.
• SUNDERLAND VERDICT: Keane's fondness for Tottenham's fringe players provoked comment, but this looked a vastly improved team after his summer spending. His side controlled the midfield before the break, and the combination of Steed Malbranque, Teemu Tainio, Andy Reid and Kieran Richardson showed promise. The three more players Keane believes they need surely include a centre-forward and a centre-back but, even so, this observer has a hunch they could prove the strongest side in the North-East.
• LIVERPOOL VERDICT: It is hard to argue with Benitez when he says there is a requirement for reinforcements on the left. Yossi Benayoun was not particularly poor, but the case for Barry certainly includes his versatility. After the stalemate against Standard Liege, Liverpool are yet to play well this season and there is plenty of room for improvement.