Liverpool 2 Sunderland 1 match report: Anfield given reason to believe as Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge find the target
Captain sets his side on course for victory with trademark free-kick that helps them end the night a point off the summit
Liverpool's wait for a time like his has been a long and often forlorn one. Even when the Premier League title seemed within sight again, for the Rafael Benitez team which lost only twice across the entire campaign five years ago, Manchester United were there on their shoulders, grinding them down once more.
Now they are the ones doing the grinding - grinding down the oldest enemy and, while United suffer, grinding out a win like this on a turf which has assumed all the fearsome qualities it once possessed. They have fewer players at their disposal than Manchester City - who they climbed back above into second place, one point off the top - and infinitely less resources. But the best strike force in the country and the best collective mentality in the country continue to bridge the gap, driving them on and on to seven consecutive wins now.
It's a few years since “we're going to win the league” rang out here without anything other than irony, as it did here - though it was the anxiety which gripped the stadium as Liverpool struggled to break through which spoke most loudly. It was the anxiety of an Anfield which believes that with a run of form and such an embedded, consistent football philosophy as this the title is within reach. Rodgers resisted the notion, of course. “For us, there is not the expectancy, certainly this year,” he said, though other aspects of his post-match talk reinforced the idea that the ultimate prize can be achieved. He said it is a time for the supporters to show cool heads - “the message to the supporters is to keep believing; we have to keep calm,” he said.
The victory was as significant as the ones in which Liverpool drove four goals past Everton and Swansea and five past Arsenal, in their previous three league games here, because it was so hard earned. “The game was set up for a big party, four or five goals and everyone celebrating after half an hour and the game went on and on and they couldn't score and we made it something special,” Gus Poyet said with justification. Sunderland, displaying a five-man defence they'd first worked on this week, were obdurate opponents and, when their night seemed over, came at Liverpool again with Ki Sung-Yeung and Adam Johnson. Sunderland may remain marooned in the relegation zone but in Poyet they have a master of imagination, desperate for his side to play to a level at home on Wearside that they do elsewhere.
Even the carnival atmosphere that Rodgers had asked for by smartly dramatising this occasion as a 'homecoming' was punctured when the game began, though it, too, had conjured images of the glory days of the 1980s. Liverpool started with the usual intensity - Joe Allen surging 40 yards through midfield from his position in a first half which suggested his confidence is growing - but the door was slammed on the side.
John O'Shea's early hack from behind at Suarez gave him a free kick which he bent two inches over the bar and it was the Uruguayan who lifted a cross with the outside of his right boot that Sturridge, stretching his neck, could not place a head on. But when Lee Cattermole, engulfed at times in the two-man midfield shield which sat before five defenders, ran the ball into Suarez's path, the striker was confronted by a sea of yellow shirts and reduced to taking a pot shot from the edge of the area.
The Rodgers mantra about calmness and “just dominating the ball” prevailed. The weakest links would have to be exploited and Sunderland's was Santiago Vergini, who pulled down Suarez cynically on the edge of the penalty area when Phillipe Coutinho had stolen a ball from Cattermole and run it through for him. Screams for the Italian's dismissal were unjustified - Andrea Dossena was covering, on the pitch he once graced as Liverpool's first Italian signing - but that particular argument was academic. The captain wrapped his foot around one more of those free kicks which have become a signature mark and the relief washed through Anfield.
Connor Wickham - whose performance did not suggest that he will be the magical rescue remedy that Poyet has suggested now he is back from a loan at Leeds - had a shot deflected off Martin Skrtel, which forced Simon Mignloet to scramble the ball away just before half time. But the night seemed over. Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were running at the rearguard with growing menace when the Englishman was allowed a foot or two of space to run at Dossena and deliver a shot from the right hand side of the box which was deflected in off Wes Brown to double Liverpool's lead. It was Sturridge's 20th league goal of the campaign and you must reach back to the campaign of 1963-4 for the last time two players in a Liverpool team have scored 20 in the league. For Suarez and Sturridge read Roger Hunt and Ian St John. No-one around here needs reminding that that was a title-winning campaign.
Liverpool then rapidly reached full flow - Sturridge's side-foot shot from Henderson's cut back accidentally striking Suarez before a neat nexus of touches between Coutinho and Suarez allowed Sturridge to bend the ball against the bar - before Poyet found his second formula, with the double substitutions of Ki and Johnson. Both epitomised that huge surge of optimism and cup success which accompanied Poyet's arrival on Wearside. Johnson provided a lay-off from which Cattermole smashed against the bar. Ki lost Jon Flanagan from a corner 14 minutes from time and bent down to head the ball home.
That meant some terribly anxious moments at the death, none more than when O'Shea climbed to head a Johnson corner into the six yard box a few minutes from time, with no-one on the end of it. Anfield raised the roof again and Liverpool prevailed.
Rodgers will not talk about titles and the impediments to the ultimate accolade include encounters with Manchester City and Chelsea in a 14-day period next month. But when those sides do arrive at a revived and reinvigorated Anfield, they will be facing a dangerous Liverpool side with sights firmly on the Premier League summit. Liverpool may not be favourites with too many people, as Gerrard put it, but not too many people will cherish the prospect of playing them either. The title remains anything but a two-horse race.
Man of the match Suarez.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee K Friend (Leicestershire).
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