Liverpool 3 Tottenham Hostpur 2
Timing is everything and if nothing else, Mario Balotelli has not lost his sense of occasion during his dispiriting debut season at Liverpool. The £16m misfit came off the bench to seal victory over Tottenham Hotspur with his first Premier League goal for Brendan Rodgers' team in the 83rd minute at Anfield. It was an overdue but significant repayment from the Italy international.
With Liverpool's owners looking on and a draw beckoning, a result that would have done Rodgers' men few favours in their pursuit of a top-four finish, Balotelli read Adam Lallana's right-wing cross perfectly to beat Hugo Lloris from close range.
The game was open, entertaining and befitting two confident teams harbouring ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League after difficult starts to the season.
It was unusual to hear Rodgers discuss the consequences for Liverpool of not winning, as he did on the eve of this game. The manager expressed his customary belief in the form and character of his side but, as though ensuring the significance was not lost on anyone at Anfield, he also spoke of “the pressure on the other games in the run-in” and the threat of “blowing us away from where we want to finish” should Liverpool fail to close the gap on Spurs to a mere point.
The home team's task was complicated not only by Tottenham's run of one defeat in 10 league games prior to kick-off, and an impressive points haul of 22 from the previous 27 available, but the loss of Raheem Sterling to a foot injury. Sterling has been troubled by the problem since the FA Cup replay at Bolton Wanderers last Wednesday. His place at the focal point of Liverpool's attack was taken by Daniel Sturridge as England's best striker – according to Rodgers – made his first league start since the 3-0 win at White Hart Lane in August.
That victory represented Liverpool’s fourth in succession against Spurs, and by an aggregate scoreline of 15-2, but Mauricio Pochettino’s side showed more resolve than their meek predecessors in this fixture. There was a carelessness about the visitors, with their central midfield supplying Liverpool’s attack consistently in the first half, but the confidence of a team blessed with a prolific striker was apparent too.
Sturridge was sent through on goal by Tottenham players twice in the opening 20 minutes but showed inevitable rust on both occasions. The first, from Ryan Mason's loose pass, saw the striker shoot tamely at Hugo Lloris having held off Eric Dier and his second, from Nabil Bentaleb's misplaced ball, lacked the pace to escape the powerful defender's attentions. Dier diverted Sturridge's shot over and received the added bonus of a goal-kick.
Lazar Markovic volleyed over from close range and Lloris made an excellent save low to his right to deny Sturridge after Jordan Ibe combined with the Serbian down the right. The Tottenham keeper's next intervention was less impressive, however, as he and his defenders failed to deal with a routine clearance down the field from Simon Mignolet. Jan Vertonghen's unconvincing challenge on Sturridge rebounded kindly into the path of Markovic, Dier dropped off for reasons best known to himself and the £20m summer signing from Benfica scuffed his shot beyond Lloris' weak left hand and into the bottom corner.
Tottenham responded positively. Emre Can threw himself in the way of a Christian Eriksen shot and the Dane then combined neatly with Erik Lamela to create Kane's 23rd goal of the season. Liverpool failed to exert sufficient pressure on the Spurs' pair outside the area, Mamadou Sakho slipped as Erik Lamela played a disguised pass into the box and Kane was left free to drive in the equaliser between Mignolet's legs.
The game continued to flow both ways and Sturridge almost restored Liverpool’s advantage in nonchalant style when Ibe’s right-wing cross deflected into his path six yards out. The Liverpool striker was facing away from goal and surrounded by several white shirts but back-flicked the ball against the outside of a post.
Tottenham started the second half with purpose but it was Liverpool who regained the lead when Danny Rose was adjudged to have clipped Sturridge inside the area. Phil Dowd waved play on after the striker tumbled over the left back's out-stretched leg only for his assistant to signal for a foul. Gerrard converted the spot-kick just beyond Lloris' finger-tips for his 10th goal of his farewell Liverpool season.
There was further controversy when Spurs levelled for a second time. Gerrard was booked for a foul that wasn’t on Eriksen, who drew a fine save from Mignolet from the resulting free-kick albeit with the ball dropping to Kane inside the area. Kane squared, from an offside position claimed Liverpool, and Mousa Dembélé was able to convert with his chest from close range. The offside appeals went unheeded. But Balotelli would have the final word.