And then there were three. The title race narrowed again in midweek as Liverpool and Manchester City capitalised on Arsenal’s slip-up against Swansea to pull clear of the Gunners and close the gap to Chelsea at the top of the table. With just 2 points separating the top 3 (albeit with a game in hand for City) the season looks set to go all the way to the wire, with the visits of both City and Chelsea to Anfield looking all the more crucial after the last set of fixtures. Liverpool’s performance against a determined Sunderland side was less assured than those of recent weeks, but the three points secured against determined opposition could well prove pivotal in the coming weeks.

Lucky Black Cats

With much of the possession in the first half, Liverpool had initially struggled to break down a well-prepared Sunderland defence. Playing a 5-3-2 formation with 2 dedicated defensive midfielders, Gus Poyet’s team gave no doubt as to their intentions for the match. With Borini ineligible, the Uruguayan manager opted to try and frustrate the league’s most deadly attack and, from the outset, this plan appeared to be working well. Although the possession was strongly in Liverpool hands, the deep-lying Sunderland defence proved adept at limiting the Reds to long-range pot shots for the first 20 minutes. Suarez seemed to be struggling a little with his control of the ball, whilst both Allen and Henderson looked a little jaded and bereft of attacking ideas. Their constant desire to pass the ball wide when approaching the penalty area, as opposed to looking for a ball forward or taking a shot, was beginning to elicit some discontent from the home crowd. That said, Philippe Coutinho was in sparkling form and it was his interception high up the pitch from Cattermole’s misplaced pass which led to the first goal. Coutinho’s flick through for Suarez was taken well by the striker, who turned his marker with ease. Through on goal, Suarez was wrestled to the ground by the hapless Vergini who was fortunate to only see yellow, with the referee being Friend both in name and nature to the Sunderland defender. The idea that Brown or Dossena would have made it back in time to stop Suarez was a charitable one from the official, a point made vociferously by the Liverpool players. Having seen Suarez place a previous free kick over the bar, Steven Gerrard took over set-piece duties and promptly showed why he is still regarded as one of the best dead-ball specialists in the league. Questions have to be asked about Mannone’s positioning (both of himself and his wall), but Gerrard’s strike took full advantage and the relief around Anfield was palpable. The celebration from Gerrard and his subsequent joking with Suarez were evidence of a captain and a team full of belief and enjoying their football.

Sunderland responded well to the goal, winning the first couple of corners of the night immediately afterwards, but were extremely fortunate not to go down to 10 men when Vergini was deceived again by Suarez and caught the Uruguayan with a clumsy sliding challenge. A dismissal at that stage could well have opened the floodgates and the referee again erred on the side of leniency. Conspiracy theorists may well argue that this was the third occasion this season where Liverpool were hindered by players not being sent off, after Samuel Eto’o at Stamford Bridge and Rafael at Manchester United. As it turned out, Friend’s generosity nearly proved to be hugely costly to the Reds.

Champagne on ice

Liverpool started the second half in a much brighter fashion, playing with an effervescence which has characterised much of their recent play and helped them to the sharp end of the table. With Coutinho again the fulcrum of attacks, Liverpool drove forward with great intent and once Sturridge’s deflected shot went in, it appeared that the score line would be in line with the confident pre-match predictions. In actual fact, Sunderland rallied after their initial shock and the introduction of Ki and Johnson brought some much needed purpose to their attacking play. Suddenly, Liverpool were under pressure, with the Korean player drifting into spaces between the midfield and back line. With Johnson working Flanagan well on the right flank, it was no great surprise to see the Reds concede. Some blame must go to Flanagan for losing his man at the corner, but the lack of a player on the back post and the poor initial reaction to the driven ball into the box must also share some of the culpability. The Sunderland goal was the cue for a nervous last period of the game, with Suarez’s determination to attack at every opportunity causing a worrying lack of possession for the home side. Luckily, the cooler heads of Sterling and Johnson helped to keep the ball in the corner and run the clock down to a vital Liverpool victory.

Conclusion

It was hardly a vintage performance from Rodgers’ side, against a well-organised if limited Sunderland team. The red card (or lack thereof) could well have proved to be crucial; as it was, the Reds were good value for their victory. Questions once again should be raised about defending from set-pieces, although aside from the goal both centre-backs and Mignolet had good games. Gerrard’s tendency to defend as part of a flat four was also exposed here, with Ki allowed far too much space in front of the Liverpool defence. The captain otherwise had a good game, but his positional awareness will need to be much better against opponents such as Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen. Johnson continued his re-integration into the team, providing a constant outlet on the right with some good runs and was unfortunate to be called offside early in the first half. Flanagan was solid for the most part, although needs to maintain his concentration over 90 minutes to avoid mistakes like the goal. The overall performance was largely controlled, albeit with a lack of penetration which has been extremely rare this season. The team will be better prepared to slice through a Spurs side in the hunt for 4th place and a seemingly incapable defence.

Man of the match:

Philippe Coutinho.

Credit to @MostarLFC

Liverpool vs Sunderland Post-match by Toby Podmore



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About The Author

Toby Podmore

is a Liverpool-supporting cuckoo from a rugby-mad South African nest in north London, Toby Podmore was brought to Liverpool football club through a soft spot for Michael Owen. With that well and truly gone, his love for the club has remained with him from France to the UK and back again. He now spends his time reading, writing and watching the club from Belfast.

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