Latin link-up has Reds purring
Sharp, skilful and South American, he was sublime. It has been the story of Liverpool's season, a campaign where results have fluctuated but Luis Suarez's devastating form has been a constant. Yet this was not a repeat from the archives; not when there was a welcome element of novelty. The Uruguayan was not the only inventive, incisive attacker from the southern hemisphere to flourish in northern England.
While Suarez scored three goals, Philippe Coutinho made two. If there was a predictability about the excellence that brought the Uruguayan a hat-trick, the Brazilian's brilliance was more encouraging. Bought from Inter Milan for £8.5 million he began with a double disadvantage. Few recent big-money arrivals at Anfield, with the notable exceptions of Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, have made an early impact. Liverpool's No. 10 shirt, worn last by Joe Cole and Andriy Voronin, seemed cursed. The portents may be unfavourable, but his performance was terrific.
In contrast, the No. 7 is revered and, since the heydays of Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish, it has been donned by no finer player than Suarez. "He is absolutely incredible," said Brendan Rodgers. "Forget about his quality. It is his hunger and desire. Every time he comes on to the pitch he produces stunning performances."
With the latest, Suarez added further weight to his manager's argument that he should be the Footballer of the Year. If the ballots are flooded by votes with a Liverpool postmark, he may be, though Robin van Persie and Gareth Bale are likelier winners. While Suarez may never win the battle for hearts and minds outside the Anfield diaspora, the race for the Golden Boot is determined by facts and figures and he accelerated past Van Persie to take the lead.
The numbers are starting to stack up for the Uruguayan. He has five goals against Wigan this season; five in his last two games, three of them free kicks; 28 in all, 21 of them in the Premier League. Each time the net billows, Suarez's chance conversion rate becomes both better and less of an issue. Each time he strikes, interest in him is likely to mount.
"Top players want to play at the top level," Rodgers accepted. Suarez, however, appears happy to stay. "He has got a real affinity here with the players. The supporters adore him and he loves the city of Liverpool. He genuinely sees there is a great future for us."
Rodgers' entire approach has involved the promise of a better tomorrow. This was a performance of confidence and class that bodes well for next season if Liverpool can replicate it more often and against superior opposition. The second goal, a combination of old and new, with local roots before the Latin American contingent took over, epitomised Rodgers' ethos. Steven Gerrard was the instigator; Suarez the executioner. In between came Coutinho, drifting free to collect the captain's perceptive pass and piercing the Wigan defence as Suarez sprung the offside trap.
It was a moment to illustrate the silken touch, capacity to glide into space and ability to pick the right option. "His pass for the second goal and his piece of skill for the first goal were phenomenal," Rodgers added. The opener had come from an unusual source, Stewart Downing doubling his tally of Liverpool league goals and Wigan sowing the seeds of their downfall.
Elementary errors mounted as Athletic first allowed Pepe Reina's goal forward to bounce, then failed to track Coutinho and finally left Downing unmarked in the six-yard box to head in the newcomer's cross. "Our defensive performance in the first 20 minutes made the game impossible," said Roberto Martinez.
In the following half-hour, Suarez completed his second hat-trick of the season. A free kick took a hefty deflection off Shaun Maloney and, when found by Glen Johnson, he prodded a shot through Ali Al Habsi's legs.
"We were brilliant," Rodgers said. "A wonderful performance." There have been several of late, but the caveat is that none were against their peers. Fulham, QPR, Sunderland, Norwich and a weakened Swansea side had been swept aside. "Now the players are accustomed to how we are asking them to play," Rodgers said. "As each quarter of the season has gone, we have got better and better."
And so, with victory assured, Rodgers saluted in song and Suarez preparing to take the match ball home, the travelling fans' thoughts turned to another Spanish-speaking adopted Merseysider. There was a deafening chorus of Rafa Benitez's name, sending a message not to the current Liverpool manager, but to their Chelsea counterparts.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Luis Suarez. "When you put his work rate on top of his quality and finishing, that's what makes him world class," Rodgers said. On this evidence, it is hard to argue and, while Suarez has flourished alongside Sturridge of late, with the Englishman injured, he prospered as a lone striker.
WIGAN VERDICT: Shaun Maloney posed a threat to the Liverpool goal and Wigan created several chances but the problems came at the other end. With 10 games to go, they need a rapid improvement in their defending if they are to preserve their Premier League status. Emmerson Boyce and James McArthur were involved in a first-half confrontation but Martinez said: "I was glad to see that. If everyone could have that sort of passion we would have been a lot more competitive than we have been in the first 20 minutes."
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: The injured Sturridge certainly was not missed in an assured display. While Liverpool have had mixed returns from summer signings, their January arrivals have begun better and, until a tiring Coutinho was replaced, he was excellent. Another significant performance came in goal. Martinez rated Pepe Reina's performance, which included outstanding saves from Boyce and Franco di Santo, the best by a visiting goalkeeper this season.