Liverpool’s Mario Balotelli picked the perfect time to score his first Premier League goal for the club as he stole the headlines from the battle between England strikers present and, potentially, future.
All the talk pre-match was about Daniel Sturridge and his free-scoring Tottenham counterpart Harry Kane.
No-one had mentioned Balotelli, back in the squad for the first time in four matches after a woeful substitute appearance in the Capital One Cup semi-final at Chelsea.
No-one had given him a second thought and when he replaced Sturridge after 74 minutes there were probably not many inside Anfield who gave him a hope of scoring.
But he displayed a predatory instinct not previously seen since his B#16million summer move from AC Milan to convert fellow substitute Adam Lallana’s cross from close range seven minutes from time.
If he does little else in his time at the club, which remains in doubt despite him surviving the January transfer window, his goal against the Reds’ top-four rivals could still prove pivotal.
It lifted his side to within two points of third-placed Southampton, who have a match in hand, and also fourth-placed Arsenal.
Without his late intervention the debate would have centred around Kane and Sturridge.
The Spurs striker scored his 23rd of the season, equalising Lazar Markovic’s opener, while the closest his opposite number came was a clever backheel against the post.
Sturridge did win the penalty from which Steven Gerrard scored his 10th of the campaign but that was soon cancelled out by Mousa Dembele’s close-range effort.
In truth there could not be a truly fair comparison between the two strikes on show as Sturridge was starting his first match since August 31 – coincidentally the 3-0 victory at White Hart Lane – after two substitute appearances while Kane has been on a hot streak since the end of September.
Sturridge, still feeling his way back into Premier League action after the thigh injury which sidelined him for five months, still looked half a yard short of his very best blistering pace but his reactions in front of goal seemed to be up to speed.
Twice Hugo Lloris denied him, once after Ryan Mason had given the ball away, but the France goalkeeper will question himself over Liverpool’s 15th-minute opener.
Simon Mignolet’s punt downfield dropped straight at Sturridge’s feet, Spurs did not clear and Markovic took full advantage to plant a shot past Lloris, who should have done better given his class.
Tottenham were losing the battle in midfield as Liverpool’s pace of passing and movement had them chasing shadows – which may explain why Nabil Bentaleb gave the ball straight to Sturridge and had to be rescued by Eric Dier’s saving tackle.
Momentum was with the hosts but Kane’s equaliser soon put the brakes on that.
The 21-year-old’s first sniff of a chance had been dealt with by Martin Skrtel but he made no mistake with his second, turning Mamadou Sakho and leaving the France defender on the floor as he collected Erik Lamela’s pass and fired under Mignolet.
It was the first goal Liverpool had conceded in 416 minutes and the first from open play since New Year’s Day.
The game opened up even more, which benefited youngster Jordon Ibe who drove one shot into Lloris after a good run and then crossed for Sturridge to backheel against a post as Tottenham’s defence panicked.
Sturridge maintained his threat after the break and it was his weaving run which was halted by Danny Rose inside the penalty area, although it took a linesman’s flag to convince Dowd to award the spot-kick.
Gerrard slotted home to make it 10 for the season, becoming his side’s leading goalscorer, but any control they had had over the game had long gone.
Mignolet tipped over a rasping Lamela drive and did well to keep out a Christian Eriksen free-kick but Dembele was on hand to turn the ball home from close range.
Balotelli replaced Sturridge after 74 minutes and entered the pitch to words of encouragement from four sides of the ground.
It was more in hope than expectation, although there is still a groundswell of feeling among fans for the Italy international to succeed despite his underwhelming performances so far.
But he delivered when his side needed it most, nipping in behind his marker in the six-yard box to divert Lallana’s cross into the net.
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