Liverpool survived a late scare to hold onto a 2-1 victory over Sunderland and move to within a point of Chelsea at the top of the Premier League table.
Against a struggling, lackluster Sunderland side, it looked like being a comfortable victory for Liverpool, despite the Merseysiders being far from their rampaging best. Steven Gerrard curled in a free-kick six minutes before half time to break Sunderland’s resistance and the valuable points looked to be sealed when Daniel Sturridge’s deflected strike found the net just three minutes after the interval. But Sunderland finally showed some attacking purpose late on and struck back when substitute Ki Sung-Yueng headed in a corner with 14 minutes remaining. Nerves were suddenly rampant around Anfield and they almost proved costly with John O’Shea missing a glorious chance in the dying minutes to dent Liverpool’s title chances and provide a huge lift to Sunderland’s hopes of staying up.
Liverpool had shown their inexperience in failing to display the necessary control to see the game out without such anxiety. Yet, having ultimately survived despite not being at their best, they had also shown a resolve that has not been present until recently. Now with seven wins on the bounce, Liverpool will hope to keep that run going to remain firmly in contention when they host both Manchester City and Chelsea next month.
Sunderland boss Gus Poyet looked to thwart Liverpool’s relentless forward assault by selecting a back five, in theory leaving them with an extra center-back to deal with Sturridge and Luis Suarez. It had some success in the early going with Liverpool restricted to long-range efforts, most of which soared over Vito Mannone’s crossbar.
But Sunderland and in particular Santiago Vergini were caught out shortly before the interval, with Liverpool understandably frustrated that their opponents weren’t reduced to 10 men. The Argentine, who was keeping close tabs on Suarez, allowed his fellow South American to get past him just outside the box before clearly hauling him down. A free-kick was duly awarded and the January signing was lucky to escape with only a yellow card. Sunderland’s fortune would last a matter of seconds, however. Gerrard stepped up to the ball and curled a fine effort into the net, although Mannone may be disappointed to have only got the edge of a glove to it given that it failed to find the top corner.
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While they had limited their opponents’ advances, Sunderland had offered precious little going forward. In addition to their five-man defense, the visitors had Lee Cattermole and Liam Bridcutt dropping deep in front of the back line. Although two strikers had been selected to in theory give Sunderland a threat on the break, Jozy Altidore and Connor Wickham offered precious little. Poyet will certainly have been looking for more after the interval, but within three minutes the match was taken further from their grasp. Sturridge was found by Henderson in the top right corner of the box and after taking a touch inside onto his left foot curled a shot looking for the far corner that got a helpful deflection off of Wes Brown on its way past Mannone.
Sunderland did finally produce a threat to the Liverpool goal with a bolt from the blue when Lee Cattermole struck the crossbar, but just seconds later Sturridge demonstrated Liverpool’s continued danger by doing likewise at the other end. The game was seemingly heading toward its inexorable conclusion when Sunderland stunned Anfield by pulling a goal back. Adam Johnson and Ki had provided some much-needed impetus after coming off the bench and it was the former’s corner that saw Jon Flanagan take his eye off Ki and allow him to stoop and head past Simon Mignolet at the back post.
The atmosphere was suddenly altered both on and off the pitch. Rodgers looked to hold what his side had by withdrawing Sturridge and putting on Raheem Sterling. With Sunderland now making the running, the anxiety was clear both in Liverpool’s players and in the voices of their supporters.
And the hosts so nearly succumbed. Johnson’s free-kick found the head of O’Shea just five yards out but the former Manchester United defender glanced a header poorly wide of the far post. The relief that swirled around Anfield at the blowing of the final whistle told its own story.