Liverpool 2-1 Sunderland: Reds combine flair with character to secure crucial victory
Liverpool maintained their title challenge in spirited fashion, urged on by the ardent Anfield support as they moved a point adrift of leaders Chelsea. An air of expectancy submerged the historic ground prior to kick-off, with most anticipating a comfortable victory for the hosts, but this is the Premier League after all.
They had been made to desperately weather a late storm from Sunderland, gallantly attempting to fight back from two goals down. Gus Poyet's double introduction of Ki Seung-Yeung and Adam Johnson swung the game in the visitors' favour, forcing the Kop to the edge of their seats. But the Reds held on, prompting chants of "We're going to win the league". Anfield was hoping and dreaming beforehand, but now is seriously believing.
Brendan Rodgers's men combined the occasional flair with determined character. It was a display deprived of their usual attacking ferocity, digging deep to produce an ugly victory, a common trait held by future champions.
Steven Gerrard led by example, brilliantly assertive and netting an incredible free-kick. Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge continuously posed a genuine threat with the latter rewarded for his splendid efforts with a superb curling strike. Glen Johnson was a nuisance on the right-hand side, so often enticing the opening of this stout Sunderland rearguard.
The Black Cats threatened to derail the hosts' title aspirations at times, most prominently through Ki's diving header to evoke nerves and a reverberation of collective anxiety. The strike paring of Connor Wickham, recalled from his loan spell at troubled Leeds United, and out-of-form Jozy Altidore was pedestrian, failing to cause Liverpool any notable adversities.
It was a stark contrast to the form of Liverpool's SAS, sensed by Poyet as he selected three centre-halves - Brown, O'Shea and Vergini - to stifle the hazardous danger posed by both Suarez and Sturridge. Winged by Phil Bardsley and former Reds defender Andrea Dossena, their defensive system provided the platform for a gratifying first 38 minutes.
Sunderland resisted their title-chasing opponents' conservative pressure, sitting excessively deep to deny Suarez and Sturridge any adequate space for perilous manoeuvre. Rodgers's men were reduced to unsuccessful potshots, with Johnson, Coutinho, Sturridge, Allen and Suarez chronologically firing over the crossbar. Frustration crept into the expectant home support. The players showed signs of nerves with wayward passes. It was left to the captain Gerrard to shine a much-needed light on proceedings.
Santiago Vergini was fortunate to not have been sent off, forcing Suarez to the ground as the Uruguayan raced through on goal. Whether Brown was close enough to cover the Argentinian is debatable, but the precision and accuracy on Gerrard's subsequent free-kick is not, curling into the top right corner beyond the despaired reaches of Vito Mannone. It was vintage Gerrard, wheeling away in celebration as pure relief reverberated around Anfield.
Sunderland briefly unchained their restricting locks and ventured forward. Mignolet pushed away Wickham's deflected strike as the visitors registered two corners.
Vergini was again highly fortunate as he slid in on Suarez. It was a laboured lunge from the man on loan from Estudiantes and it was imprudent from Poyet not to have withdrawn his precarious booked defender at the break.
Sturridge then gave Liverpool breathing space, cutting inside past Dossena and curling his deflected effort past the horribly helpless Mannone. Moments later, Friend failed to award Suarez a penalty after Liverpool's No.7 had been clipped by Cattermole.
Ki and Johnson came on, combining well after a minute as the Englishman chipped the ball beyond the Liverpool defence and into the path of his South Korean team-mate, who was unable to reach and consequently trouble the hosts.
The Reds had eased off and after minutes of penetrative football, they returned to the conservative style. Cattermole was extremely unlucky not to have scored his first for the Wearside club, volleying beautifully with the outside of the boot before Sturridge's curling effort kissed the post.
Apprehension became the over-running emotion around this historic stadium as Ki dived low to head Johnson's cross home. Rodgers instructed Raheem Sterling on to the pitch in reaction, but in truth it should have been a defender introduced. All the same, the Reds held on stubbornly. Maybe this is our year, those Liverpool fans must have been thinking.
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