Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Liverpool still in dreamland after nervous Sunderland encounter

LIVERPOOL 2 - SUNDERLAND 1

Pick that one out:  Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard bends the ball into the Sunderland net to give his team the lead
Pick that one out: Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard bends the ball into the Sunderland net to give his team the lead

Liverpool's wait for a time like this 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 again.

Now they are the ones doing the grinding – grinding down the oldest enemy and, while United suffer, grinding out the wins on a turf which has assumed all the fearsome qualities it once possessed.

They have fewer players at their disposal than Manchester City – whom they climbed back above into second place having played two games more, one point off the top last night – and infinitely fewer resources than City or Chelsea. But the best strikeforce in the country and the best collective mentality in the country continue to bridge the gap, driving them on and on.

"And now you're going to believe us, we're going to win the league" was the chant which rang out last night. It's a few years since that was heard here without anything other than irony and it was delivered briefly, without vast conviction, but the people feel it.

Steven Gerrard encapsulated things in his programme notes. "We know we're not favourites to win the league with too many people," he said. "That's irrelevant. Favourites or not, we'll be giving it our best shot."

Sunderland were set up to quell the kind of Liverpool tide which has swept away team after team before they have even settled to the turf in the past seven months. Gus Poyet has certainly seen enough of his compatriot Luis Suarez – whose 28 Premier League goals were two more than his Sunderland players had managed in total before last night – to know that a five-man defence was the requirement.

And it worked. Brendan Rodgers' players, returning to the stadium after a month's absence, were held in check. The match-night atmosphere, amplified by the noise the manager had asked the supporters to create, was punctured, too.

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 closed on them.

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 Daniel Sturridge, stretching his neck, could not place a head on.

Even when Sunderland's imperfections allowed the home side to come at them, there were numbers in yellow quickly behind the ball.

It looked like a night when the weakest of links would need exploiting and that man was Santiago Vergini pulling down Suarez cynically on the edge of the penalty area when Philippe Coutinho had stolen a ball from Lee Cattermole and run it in for the striker.

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 as the captain wrapped his foot around one more of those free-kicks which have become a signature mark. When Gerrard's right foot had sent it to the top-right corner, the relief washed through Anfield.

There was a brief and rare sign of life from Sunderland, when Connor Wickham's shot, deflected off Martin Skrtel, forced Simon Mignolet to scramble the ball away just before half-time. But the night seemed a forgone conclusion at that point.

Three minutes after the break, Sturridge, whose chances to attack this opposition had been limited, was allowed a foot or two of space to run at Dossena and thus deliver a shot from the right-hand side of the box which was deflected off Wes Brown to double the lead.

It was his 20th league goal of the campaign and you must reach back to the campaign of 1963-64 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 was a title-winning campaign.

Liverpool then rapidly reached full flow – Sturridge's side-foot shot from Jordan Henderson's cut-back accidentally striking Suarez before a neat set of touches between Coutinho and Suarez allowed Sturridge to bend the ball against the bar.

But there was one more intervention by Poyet, looking for anything his football intelligence can deliver to rescue his team from the 18th place in which they languish, the introduction of Ki Sung-yeung and Adam Johnson, and they did deliver an impact.

Ki added some immediate momentum and thrust to the fading side, while Johnson provided a lay-off from which Cattermole smashed against the bar. It was Ki who 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 with no one on the end of it. Anfield raised the roof again and Liverpool prevailed.

The title remains anything but a two-horse race.

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