Liverpool still on track despite nervy win over Sunderland
Reds record seventh win in a row to move to within one point of league leader Chelsea
Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard (left) celebrates with team-mate Luis Suarez after scoring his side’s first goal at Anfield. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Liverpool 2 Sunderland 1
Liverpool held their nerve in response to Manchester City’s marker at Old Trafford. There is no margin for error in this most absorbing of Premier League title races and a stunning free-kick from Steven Gerrard, plus a 20th league goal of the season for Daniel Sturridge, saw off a determined Sunderland side at Anfield. Just about.
There was relief and a return to second place for Brendan Rodgers’ team after the substitute Ki Sung-yeung headed in a late goal for the visitors and Jozy Altidore missed an 89th-minute chance to puncture Liverpool optimism. Anxiety consumed Anfield for the 14 minutes that followed but Liverpool held out, their unenviable firepower providing ample consolation once again.
Only six times previously have two players scored 20 league goals in a season for Liverpool – the last coming in 1963-64 through Ian St John and Roger Hunt – but Sturridge joined Luis Suárez over that barrier to help maintain Liverpool’s title challenge. The striker has 12 goals in his last 13 appearances for Liverpool. Gerrard’s role was crucial, however, opening the scoring in fine style and telling Suárez “No more free-kicks for you” after taking on set-piece duties from the Uruguay international.
Rodgers labelled Sunderland a “very dangerous” threat to Liverpool’s title pursuit and their 18th position in the table misleading. He had a valid argument, with Poyet’s team taking more points against the top 10 than the bottom half of the Premier League and more points on their travels than at the Stadium of Light. The first half justified the Liverpool manager’s caution, with Sunderland assured rather than adventurous, before Gerrard ended their resistance.
Liverpool had not played at home for over a month and three consecutive away wins in that time, by an aggregate score of 12-3, plus even greater momentum to their title challenge only whetted Anfield’s appetite for their return. Crowds, flags and the odd smoke bomb greeted the arrival of the team coach along Anfield Road with the atmosphere outside the stadium akin to an expectant night in the Champions League. That will be next season.
In wait on the pitch was a Sunderland team minus the ineligible Fabio Borini against his parent club but with every incentive to capitalise on their games in hand over Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City. Poyet responded to the obvious threat of Suárez, Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho with a three-man central defence protected by Liam Bridcutt and Lee Cattermole. Emanuele Giaccherini was detailed to track Gerrard wherever he roamed.
The tactic succeeded where many other teams have failed at Anfield this season in keeping Liverpool at bay during their now customary early onslaught. There was panic from the first cross into the Sunderland area, goalkeeper Vito Mannone hooking clear after Santiago Vergini miss-controlled in front of his own goal, and long-range efforts from Suárez, Glen Johnson and Joe Allen sailed narrowly over.
But otherwise Sunderland stuck to their shape with discipline for the opening half hour, albeit without benefiting from the mountainous outlet of Altidore and Connor Wickham up front.
Liverpool’s movement in the final third was typically sharp and imaginative but the final ball into the strikers dipped below recent standards. Unease was growing around Anfield as the home side laboured in front of Sunderland’s shield but, when a piercing pass finally did arrive, their night was transformed.
Coutinho dispossessed Cattermole in central midfield and split the visitors’ rearguard with a precision ball into Suárez. The Liverpool striker sensed danger the moment Coutinho won possession and was clear of John O’Shea and Vergini as the Brazilian’s pass arrived, only to be sent sprawling by the Argentina defender’s out-stretched leg.
With no obvious covering defender, Wes Brown was catching up with play when the foul was committed, a straight red seemed inevitable. The referee Kevin Friend showed only yellow but Anfield’s anger evaporated when Gerrard drilled the free-kick beyond a non-existent wall and into the top corner from 20 yards.
Oblivious to one reprieve, Vergini invited a second yellow card with a lazy trip on Suárez shortly afterwards. Again Friend proved to be just that for the Sunderland defender. At the other end, the visitors’ one shot of the first half almost brought an equaliser when Wickham’s shot deflected off Martin Skrtel but former Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet made a fine save.
More of the same but with greater purpose in attack may have been the gist of Poyet’s half-time message, but it was undermined three minutes after the restart as Sturridge struck his 20th Premier League goal of the season. The Liverpool striker was afforded far too much space on the corner of the Sunderland area by Andrea Dossena as he collected Jordan Henderson’s pass. Sturridge was even shown inside onto his left foot by the former Anfield defender and duly obliged with a shot that deflected off Brown and left Mannone rooted to the spot.
The two-goal cushion liberated Liverpool’s attacking play. Suárez, producing several sublime touches, and Sturridge, combining well with team-mates, finally began to work the Sunderland goalkeeper. Anfield appealed for a penalty when Cattermole clearly clipped Suárez’s heels. Replays showed the foul was just outside the area but nothing was given