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Jan 2, 2013

Suarez still the main man

He sat in the back row of the directors' box, newly acquired club coat signifying that a £12 million transfer had officially been ratified. Liverpool are trying to right their August wrongs, bolstering a depleted department and Daniel Sturridge had duly deemed his new employers a "humongous club".

Yet as he watched the man who may be both accomplice and example at Anfield, he got a taste of what life at Liverpool is like. There is a similarity with his time at Chelsea. Having understudied a former Liverpool striker, in Fernando Torres, at Stamford Bridge, he was immediately overshadowed by the current forward, Luis Suarez.

Just as the cavalry are finally coming, the outnumbered attacker did his best to demonstrate that, contrary to popular perception, no replacements were required. Suarez has shouldered a colossal burden over the past four months and marked the end of his time as the lone forward, in every sense, with back-to-back match-winning displays, bookending the new year and tormenting slow central defenders with an insatiable appetite that bordered on cruelty.

"I was talking to Harry Redknapp the morning after the [QPR] game and he was saying he is a Messi-type character," Brendan Rodgers said. "At the beginning of the season when I was giving him a wee breather, he didn't want it. He has to be playing two or three times a week to be at the top of his game. One game a week is no good for him, he needs to be playing."

The crowded Christmas programme, therefore, was ideal for Suarez. Perhaps spurred on by the sense of imminent competition, Suarez recorded a second brace in the space of four days. Aided and abetted by Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling, a stellar supporting cast, Sunderland were put to the sword. The contradiction in their display was that, while Liverpool enjoyed the ascendancy, the Black Cats had two clear-cut chances in the first half: James McClean shooting just wide and Matt Kilgallon being denied by a superb save from Pepe Reina. "We had to take one of those," Martin O'Neill lamented.

Liverpool, however, were clinical when it mattered. That has not always been the case and their opener was abnormal in other respects. Besides being the second goal of Sterling's brief career, a team who play on the floor struck when the ball touched the ground four times after Sunderland's goal kick. Gerrard headed it to Suarez, who chested it down, spun and picked out the advancing Sterling. He took his time before lobbing Simon Mignolet. Much of the credit belonged to the supplier. "He's a real team player," said Rodgers. Yet Suarez is also an individualist, as his opening goal illustrated. At his best, Suarez seems to possess an irresistible momentum. He was strong enough to shake off Carlos Cuellar, though the Spaniard fouled him, when bursting onto Gerrard's pass and quick enough to accelerate into the box and drive a shot past Mignolet.

Rodgers' preference for a short-passing game is well known but the third came from the longest of balls. Seventy yards from his striker, Gerrard picked out Suarez, who chested the ball down before finishing, providing a reminder of his strike against Newcastle. "You won't see a better pass than that this season," Rodgers said. "Incredible."

If it is fast becoming something of a trademark move from Suarez, who likes to chest the ball down while on the run, Gerrard's Hollywood ball, removed from his repertoire when played as a striker's sidekick, is being deployed again. An authoritative figure in a deeper role, with a passing range neither Joe Allen nor Lucas Leiva can rival, he suggested that early-season reports of his demise were premature.

"People were talking about Steven Gerrard not being fit," Rodgers said. "The guy has been absolutely phenomenal over the past four games."

Sunderland, in contrast, peaked in the second and were tired by the last.

"The fourth game has really caught up with us," a downbeat O'Neill said. "We need some reinforcements." Liverpool's first has put pen to paper and Sturridge will be eligible for Sunday's FA Cup tie at Mansfield. For now, however, the standard for strikers has been set.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Luis Suarez - He now has more goals in half a campaign than he managed in the entirety of last season and is emerging as Robin van Persie's major rival for the Golden Boot.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Beyond the three major contributors to victory, there were other encouraging displays. The huge applause for Jordan Henderson when he went off is a sign he is finally winning over the Anfield public while Glen Johnson, who switched flanks with Jose Enrique injured, again suggested he is one of the division's finest left backs. Allen, more attacking than usual in his cameo, twice came close to opening his Liverpool account and, when he did find the net, it was disallowed for offside.

SUNDERLAND VERDICT: It was not a night that Cuellar or Kilgallon will have enjoyed. Sunderland missed their two injured central defenders, though whether any of them could have stopped Suarez is another matter. O'Neill's reluctance to rotate means a fourth game in 11 days was always going to be difficult, but a return of six points from a possible 12 has nonetheless reduced the threat of relegation.

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