No baech balls this time but Liverpool might have been playing on the sand, given the uninhibited, effervescent way in which they launched themselves into a run-in when only victories will do. It was a weekend of several outstanding Premier League performances but Liverpool's first-half effort at Anfield was the pre-eminent one, a victory of top-four quality which prompts one question: do they have time to make it up there?
Last season they took 19 points from their last seven games in the course of their title challenge, and in five seasons under Rafael Benitez have averaged 15 points in that same period. They are a different proposition away from Anfield – three draws from six away matches this year – but an eighth successive home win offers hope, in places where hopes have been non-existent across the last seven months.
Fernando Torres, whose mere six goals away from Anfield this season tells the story of their travels, extended his tally here to seven in four games but for once he was overshadowed by others. Maxi Rodriguez, in particular, showed that £1.5m can buy you talent with his finest performance for Liverpool, characterised by a wonderful touch, a simplicity in passing and an understanding with Steven Gerrard.
Benitez was still simmering with indignation last night about criticisms of his decision to move Gerrard to the left wing during the side's fading second half at Manchester United last Sunday. "In terms of tactics very little was different," he said. But you can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions when Gerrard has been deployed alongside Javier Mascherano in central midfield this season, rather than Lucas Leiva.
"Were we that bad or were they that good?" mused Sunderland's Steve Bruce of the afternoon's events. There was a large fair slice of the former. The vast acres of space afforded to Liverpool in midfield made it one of those days when Daniel Agger could amble forward with the elegance of Alan Hansen. Only Lee Cattermole can hold his head up for the visitors this morning, though he was lost at half-time to the hamstring that was troubling him. Ryan Babel and Glen Johnson also cashed in with major contributions.
The afternoon's tone was set in the game's third minute with a moment of genius from Torres, who took down Pepe Reina's punt on the left wing, cut past Michael Turner and, inches inside the area, hit a shot which seemed to be sailing over but dipped late into the top right corner. It was Liverpool's 38th home goal of a League season in which they have scored more freely than in any other since 1987-88, when they were champions by nine points.
For 45 minutes yesterday, their performance recalled the closest corresponding fixture in last season's calendar – the 5-0 win here over Aston Villa which marked the take-off of a title challenge – with Liverpool displaying football of a brilliance that reduced Bruce's ineffectual side to shreds.
The intricate web of quickly exchanged passes was immaculate, with Dirk Kuyt compensating for a poor season with a part at the heart of most of it, and Rodriguez at the hub. Everyone had a go, as wave after wave of red washed into the Sunderland area. Agger could have a hat-trick, Torres blazed wide after an interchange between Gerrard and later hit the base of Craig Gordon's right post. The Sunderland keeper somehow managed to claw Rodiguez's header from a Gerrard corner over the bar.
Sunderland contributed significantly to their fate. The right flank was almost entirely surrendered to Liverpool by Steed Malbranque and the host of fundamental defensive errors included Darren Bent's aimless headed clearance from Gerrard's 32nd -minute corner which sent it straight to Johnson. His 20-yard shot from his "wrong" left foot deflected in off Turner's knee.
Torres's second goal came on the hour with another piece of seemingly effortless skill in which he flicked up a ball that Johnson had slid into his path and hooked it in over the despairing tackle of Turner.
By the close, the Kop was enjoying a rendition of its new Steve Bruce anthem: "Head like a beach ball, he's got a head like ...". Bruce took it as a "back-handed compliment", which was good grace on his part. "I've had many a good day here but I'll take my medicine and go home with my tail between my legs," he said. "Then I'll come back – with a smaller head."
The laughs won't last long for Liverpool. A defining test comes next, at Birmingham on Sunday, the single challenging away game of the three left to them.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Johnson, Agger, Carragher, Insua; Rodriguez, Mascherano, Gerrard (El Zhar, 81), Babel; Torres (Ngog, 78) , Kuyt (Aquilani, 71). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Benayoun, Kyrgiakos, Lucas.
Sunderland (4-1-3-2): Gordon; Bardsley, Turner, Ferdinand, Richardson; Cana; Henderson (Zenden, 79), Cattermole (Da Silva, h-t), Malbranque (Jones, 52); Bent, Campbell. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Kilgallon, Benjani, Liddle.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire)
Booked: Sunderland Bent.
Man of the match: Rodriguez.