Talk of a crisis at Liverpool proved risibly premature at Anfield last night as they swept aside Stoke City, whose obduracy cost Rafa Benitez's side dear last season in their quest for a first league title since 1990.
Fernando Torres marked his new, £110,000-a-week contract with an early goal, the Spaniard's first of the campaign. Benitez's £17m right-back Glen Johnson put the seal on a dazzling home debut with the second, while Dirk Kuyt and substitute David Ngog added late goals to banish the negativity which enveloped Liverpool after the first-day setback at Tottenham.
Johnson's principal rival for the man-of-the-match award was Steven Gerrard, who was behind each of the first three goals. If he had done nothing else, the England midfielder's high-speed "Cruyff turn" in the build-up to Kuyt's goal deserved the thunderous acclaim on his substitution.
Benitez tacitly confirmed afterwards that he had felt the pressure of a disappointing start and a modest transfer budget, suggesting that he had "decided to stay" out of loyalty to "the fans, staff and players". He added that his "commitment" was "100 per cent" and revealed that a deal to sign centre-back Sotirios Kyrgiakos from AEK Athens was almost complete.
Hailing the impact of Johnson, his close-season capture from Portsmouth, Benitez said: "We were looking for a player with quality going forward. He created chances and also scored a very good goal."
With a rare flash of humour, Benitez noted that Liverpool were already leading one league table – for the most number of stitches inserted in their players' injuries. Jamie Carragher made his 400th Premier League appearance last night with 21 in the head wound sustained in Sunday's collision with Martin Skrtel, who sat out Stoke's visit with five and a fractured jaw. Torres ended the evening with "at least 10" above an eye, according to his manager.
Stoke never looked capable of a first top-flight victory at Anfield. Tony Pulis, their manager, entered the press room saying: "Beaten by a better team. I hold my hands up." Pulis described criticism of Benitez and his players as "crazy", adding: "If they keep everyone fit, they've got the quality to be up there. I'm not saying they'll win it, but they'll be up there with Man United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal. Gerrard's touch for the third goal was the mark of a world-class player, but there's not just him and Torres. They've got some smashing players."
The Potteries side had held Liverpool to 0-0 twice last season, surviving a mysteriously disallowed goal by Gerrard at Anfield. Had Liverpool won both matches they would have taken the title on goal difference.
Pulis had boldly changed the side that beat Burnley on Saturday, dropping Ricardo Fuller and Liam Lawrence to the bench. If the plan was to swamp midfield and frustrate Liverpool, it was shredded by a fourth-minute home goal. Lucas forced the ball to the right of the Stoke area, from where Gerrard deftly cut the ball back for Torres to volley home from 12 yards.
Liverpool might have doubled their advantage in the 21st minute, the unmarked Emiliano Insua sidefooting wide after Kuyt flicked Torres's cross towards the far post. The fragility of the lead was promptly underlined when a towering throw by Rory Delap was glanced back, perhaps unintentionally, by the 18-year-old Spaniard Daniel Ayala to Pepe Reina.
Stoke had scored in precisely such fashion against Burnley. Yet when a goal did stem from a set-piece, on half-time, it fell to Liverpool. Gerrard's corner was met by a Kuyt header which James Beattie blocked on the line, only for Johnson to convert the loose ball by executing a scissors-kick of which Denis Law would have been proud.
Any lingering hope Stoke had vanished with Reina's diving save from Delap's drive early in the second half. The link play between Gerrard and Torres, with stylish embellishments by the marauding Johnson and Yossi Benayoun, took over again, taking Liverpool supporters' minds off their disquiet over the sale of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid. After Gerrard's brilliance enabled Kuyt to slide in the third, Johnson further endeared himself to the Kop with a cross Sorensen could only touch on to the bar. Ngog headed in the rebound to add insult to injury time for Stoke.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina (7); Johnson (9), Carragher (7), Ayala (6), Insua (7); Mascherano (8), Lucas (7); Kuyt (7) (Riera (5), 82), Gerrard (8) (Voronin (5), 82), Benayoun (7); Torres (8) (Ngog (5), 85). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Babel, Kelly, Dossena.
Stoke City (4-5-1): Sorensen (7); Wilkinson (6), Abdoulaye Faye (6), Shawcross (6), Higginbotham (5); Etherington (4), Delap (5), Whitehead (4) (Pugh (4), 70), Whelan (5), Cresswell (4) (Lawrence (4), 62); Beattie (5) (Fuller (4), 62). Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Griffin, Cort, Kitson.
Referee: P Walton (Northants).
Booked: Stoke Whitehead.
Man of the match: Johnson.