LONDON — Liverpool's speedy attacking unit ensured Mario Balotelli didn't shoulder the goal-scoring burden on his Premier League return, with Raheem Sterling dazzling in a 3-0 victory at Tottenham.
While Balotelli's finishing was wayward, Sterling netted the opener inside eight minutes and was at the heart of Liverpool's impressive display at White Hart Lane. Once captain Steven Gerrard extended Liverpool's lead from the penalty spot at the start of the second half, Tottenham had been subdued, and defender Alberto Moreno was able to open his account.
The dismantling of Tottenham was the perfect response by last season's runners-up to losing at Manchester City in the previous game, reasserting their threat without Luis Suarez.
"We're more pleased with the clean sheet than our attacking play which was superb again," Gerrard said. "We know we're a threat — we've got pace, we've got talented players. The challenge for this team is to defend better, that's what we got criticized for last year."
For Mauricio Pochettino, who had opened his Tottenham reign with a pair of victories in both the Premier League and Europa League, the collapse showed the size of the gulf to close with the leading sides. Tottenham hadn't even conceded a goal in its opening wins over West Ham and Queens Park Rangers, but Hugo Lloris' goal was under siege from the start by Liverpool.
"We are a team still learning and improving," Pochettino said.
Balotelli was signed from AC Milan for 16 million pounds ($26.5 million) on Monday to fill the void up front after Suarez's departure to Barcelona. But the Italy striker, who left Manchester City in January 2013, was never as menacing during his hour on the pitch at White Hart Lane as Suarez who scored twice in Liverpool's 5-0 win here last season.
Presented with an opening in the 2nd minute, Balotelli's header was parried by Lloris but he couldn't get the follow-up effort on target.
Instead, a trio of English players combined for the opener. Jordan Henderson seized possession on the halfway line and released Daniel Sturridge to launch a counterattack down the right flank before the ball was returned to the midfielder. Henderson then squared to Sterling, who was left unmarked to tap the ball into the net.
It could have been 2-0 when Sterling played in Sturridge though the center but the striker's effort went wide. Another attempt from Sturridge, after being set up by by Balotelli's backheel, was thwarted by Lloris' save. And when Lloris was stranded outside the area, Balotelli tried his luck from distance but completely missed the net.
A Tottenham miss before half time proved costly. A defensive mix-up presented Nacer Chadli with an opening but he stabbed the ball straight at Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Then, four minutes into the second half, Liverpool was further in front after being awarded a soft penalty after Joe Allen was held back by Eric Dier. Despite Balotelli's presence, Gerrard retained penalty taking duties and sent the spot kick beyond Lloris' reach.
Pochettino waited until the 59th to respond with changes, including winger Andros Townsend replacing Cristian Eriksen. Townsend's first contribution was being dispossessed on the half way line by Moreno. The left back, who joined from Sevilla last month, set away on a charge down the left before dispatching the ball into the net on the hour.
"That's what I asked of the full backs," Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said. "You've got to defend first and foremost and then join the attack."
The damage for Tottenham could have been worse had Sterling's finish matched his skill in waltzing past three Tottenham players.