Liverpool were given a late scare by Norwich but survived to emerge as 3-2 winners at Carrow Road and move five points clear at the top of the Premier League.
The visitors twice had a two-goal lead, first when Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez scored early on and then when Sterling added a second to cancel out Gary Hooper’s reply early in the second half. The defensive fragility that has existed for much of the season was in evident once more for Liverpool, though, allowing Robert Snodgrass to reply with just 13 minutes on the clock and ensure a real sense of nervousness late on.
But, against the Premier League’s lowest scorers, Liverpool hung on and breathed a huge sigh of relief at the final whistle, with Simon Mignolet able to cling onto a header from Ricky van Wolfswinkel in their most anxious moment.
After the jubilant scenes that greeted their thrilling win over Manchester City last weekend, a match against a side deep in relegation trouble presented a potential banana skin that Liverpool were determined to avoid. A shock defeat by Chelsea less than 24 hours earlier had heaped even more expectation on the shoulders of a side whose ambitions were far more modest only a matter of months ago.
While not at their best by any means, Liverpool again dealt with the tag of title favorites better than any of their rivals this season. In the absence of the injured Daniel Sturridge and suspended Jordan Henderson, Sterling and Philippe Coutinho supported Suarez up front. And Sterling was particularly outstanding, continuing his incredible development this season. After their 11th win in a row, Liverpool will now go into the meeting with Chelsea in a week’s time knowing that they can afford to draw the game and still stay on course for their first championship in 24 years.
Despite the Premier League title swinging considerably toward Anfield in recent days, Liverpool came out with a steely focus. And, as they have done so often this season, they took a firm grasp of the game within the first 20 minutes. Both goals were of outstanding quality.
Sterling’s came after just four minutes. A player who has benefited from the coaching and man-management of Rodgers perhaps more than any other gave a glowing demonstration of his improvement. Taking a pass inside from Philippe Coutonho, he easily went past Bradley Johnson and then unleashed a tremendously cleanly hit shot that flew past John Ruddy with perhaps the aid of the slightest of deflections off Michael Turner.
Sterling was involved again in Liverpool going two goals to the good just seven minutes later. Norwich failed to get a single challenge in or even pressure the ball to enable Sterling to receive the ball on the left and look into the box. There he found Suarez, whose intelligent run had left Turner utterly befuddled to give him the opportunity to guide Sterling’s pin-point pass into the corner of the net. It was Suarez’s 30th goal of the Premier League season and 12th in his last five appearances against a Norwich side who must be far past the point of being sick of the sight of him.
Norwich, in their second game under manager Neil Adams, responded well to going two goals behind. They certainly had plenty of the game for the remainder of the half, although there was a sense that Liverpool were happy to allow them to do so, happy in the knowledge that they could always threaten on the break. Steven Gerrard again added particular composure to Liverpool’s performance, spending much of the time when in possession between his two center-backs and orchestrating everything from deep.
The hosts again looked blunt in attack. Hooper was chosen to lead the line this time around, but the closest he could come to threatening in the first 45 minutes were two blocked efforts from Joe Allen. But, nine minutes into the second half, the former Celtic man was on hand to capitalize on a dreadful error from Liverpool’s goalkeeper. From Steven Whittaker’s hopeful, hoisted cross from the right, Mignolet came but could only get the slightest of touches to it with his glove, to leave it to deflect off the head of Martin Skrtel and perfectly into the path of Hooper to put into the unguarded net.
Liverpool heeded the warning the goal provided and came close to an immediate reply when Suarez placed a shot just wide after a feinting exquisitely past Johnson. And within eight minutes, Liverpool’s two-goal margin was restored. Johnson was the culprit in gifting a pass straight to Sterling and giving the pacey 19-year-old an invitation to burst forward from his own half. He easily side-stepped the challenge of Turner on the edge of the box and, at that point, probably should have laid if off to Suarez but instead his tame shot was given the benefit of a helpful deflection off of Russell Martin to loop over Ruddy and into the net.
Once again, though, Norwich weren’t yet done and scored once more from a high ball into the box. This time it was Jon Flanagan who was caught out, failing to jump and allowing Hooper to rise easily above him at the back post to loop a header past Mignolet. Suddenly, the Carrow Road crowd believed a point to aid their relegation struggle was on the cards. And they so nearly got it when Van Wolfswinkel rose to plant a firm header on goal from six yards out. But the striker who has failed to score since the opening day of the season could only direct his attempt straight at Mignolet, who claimed relievedly.
And for the remaining seven minutes, Liverpool, who missed a late chance form Lucas Leiva, showed impressive composure to see out a vital win in relative comfort.