Kenny Dalglish's signings since his second coming as Liverpool manager have not met with universal approval but the performance here of his cheapest summer recruit will have gone some way to convincing sceptics that the manager has secured at least one bargain. Craig Bellamy marked his first start since his own return to Anfield – on a free transfer from Manchester City – with an excellent display that did much to help Liverpool overcome a stylish Brighton & Hove Albion team and reach the fourth round of the Carling Cup.
The Welshman scored one goal, played a key role in his team's second, which was scored by Dirk Kuyt, and added a cut and thrust that Andy Carroll, for instance, has yet to provide. His rapid and incisive interaction with Kuyt, Maxi Rodríguez and Luis Suárez gave Liverpool a dangerous dimension that differs to the relatively static play that has tended to accompany the deployment of Carroll. Dalglish welcomed the extra option.
"Craig was fantastic," Dalglish said. "When he came in we said he would make a contribution and it's not taken him long. He just loves playing football. He's really enthusiastic and fit. They all linked up well – Craig, Maxi, Dirk and Suárez – because he's a good, intelligent footballer, as they all are."
The linkage between that quartet initially beguiled Brighton. The home side seemed paralysed for most of the first half, no doubt partially by nerves but also by the zip and zest of the visitors. "We just weren't there for the first half an hour for some reason," the Brighton manager Gus Poyet said. "But you have to pay tribute to Liverpool, especially their four offensive players. They were moving around at their best. Sometimes it doesn't matter how good you are or what system you play, when you come up against quality like that you're going to suffer."
The suffering began immediately. By the time Bellamy shot Liverpool in front in the seventh minute a goal seemed due. It arrived with deadly simplicity. After neat interplay down the left, Suárez rewarded a clever Bellamy run with a deft through-ball and the Welshman swept the ball into the net with his left foot from six yards.
Liverpool hogged the ball. The home side's centre-forward, Craig Mackail-Smith, cleared a Kuyt effort off his line in the 20th minute. Suárez shot badly wide moments later after a through-ball from Bellamy.
Three times before the break Liverpool struck the frame of the goal. First Suárez skimmed the post with a header from a Bellamy free-kick. From another free-kick, 35 yards out, Bellamy struck a thunderous shot that clipped the crossbar. Two minutes before the interval Jay Spearing struck the base of the post from outside the area.
That, though, signalled the end of Liverpool's dominance as Brighton suddenly rallied. It seemed barely credible that the hosts would make it to the break with only a one-goal deficit, yet they almost went in on level terms as at the end of the first half, following their best move of the game, Craig Noone forced an awkward save from Pepé Reina.
"I won't tell you what I said but I was at my best," Poyet said of his half-time team-talk. It worked. His team were helped by Sebastián Coates, whose sloppy pass in the 47th minute presented the ball to Noone. The midfielder, who in a previous incarnation was a roofer working on Steven Gerrard's house, showcased his proficiency in his latest profession by firing a superb shot from 25 yards against the crossbar.
Liverpool had to withstand fierce pressure, all applied with the methodical elegance that Poyet has cultivated in a side that are challenging for promotion to the Premier League having just graduated from League One. In the 81st minute, however, Liverpool scored on the counterattack. Bellamy was again influential, picking out Rodríguez with a pass from the left. The Argentinian drew the last defender before nudging the ball to Kuyt, who steered it into the bottom corner. On the pitch to join in the celebrations was Gerrard, who had arrived as a substitute to make his first appearance after six months out with a groin injury.
He was upstaged on the night, however, by a Brighton substitute. Vicente, the former Spain international whom Poyet has lured to the south coast, came on after an hour and showed his class in the last minute when he skipped into the box and drew a wild tackle from Jamie Carragher. Ashley Barnes converted the penalty with aplomb. "If we can get him fit for the pace and craziness of the English game, he will be an unbelievable player for us," said Poyet of the 30-year-old Spaniard. Suddenly it does not seem absurd for Liverpool fans to have similar thoughts about Bellamy.