LONDON (Reuters) - Liverpool's season has been full of contradictions but even the most hopeful of supporters would never have predicted a 6-0 away win in the first match of top scorer Luis Suarez's 10-game ban.
Brendan Rodgers's seventh-placed side have looked a one-man team for much of the campaign, with Suarez on fire with 23 Premier League goals, and the Uruguayan's absence until September for biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic threatened to hit them hard.
Instead they ran struggling Newcastle United ragged with an effervescent display of attacking football summed up by the cute flicks and defence-splitting passes of Philippe Coutinho and the drive and confidence of striker Daniel Sturridge.
It is no coincidence that both arrived in the January transfer window when former Swansea City boss Rodgers was forced on a spending spree after a dour first half of the campaign, characterised by a small squad and rank inconsistency.
When fans and pundits said Liverpool were too reliant on Suarez, no one thought it meant they could thrive without him.
But the fact he was not at the pinnacle of the attack effectively gave the team more freedom as the players constantly switched positions, bamboozling Newcastle's defence.
"The manager has emphasised we have got to stick together as a team and that is what we have done," Sturridge told ESPN when asked if the Suarez ban had galvanised them, before acknowledging the forward's absence could boost his own chances.
"It is good for myself that I am able to get some games."
Daniel Agger's early header, a double from long-time under-achiever Jordan Henderson, Sturridge's confident brace and Fabio Borini's first Premier League goal moments after coming off the bench had Newcastle fans dashing for the St James' Park exits.
The outstanding victory and the belief it will breed for Liverpool probably comes too late for a push for the Europa League spots with only three games left.
They have finished seventh, sixth and eighth in the last three seasons and look poised to end up seventh again but fans will hope this result can herald a return to the glory days of top-flight domination.
Newcastle would love to have the mid-table consistency of the recent Liverpool sides having gone from the ridiculous to the sublime and back to the ridiculous again in five seasons.
They suffered shock relegation in 2009, won promotion at the first attempt, finished 12th and then wowed the Premier League last season with a fifth-place finish.
This term they are in danger of being dragged back into a relegation dogfight late on, five points above third from bottom Wigan Athletic but from a game more, having looked to have escaped thanks to a raft of French signings in January.
A 3-0 home derby defeat by Sunderland earlier this month has now been followed by the Liverpool horror show, with Mathieu Debuchy's red card hardly to blame as it came with the score at 5-0.
"Unfortunately today we got a bad start to the game and never got going. It was an awful performance by us," Newcastle boss Alan Pardew said.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)