Liverpool put in a gritty performance at Anfield last night against a resolute Sunderland side to return to second place in the Premiership. The Reds withstood heavy pressure late on from Gus Poyet’s men and despite some nervous moments on the pitch, the team hung in to claim the three points.
Sunderland arrived for this fixture determined to stifle this rampant attacking Liverpool side with three central defenders deployed across their back line. The plan worked for a large portion of the first half as the home side struggled to find a way past the crowded defence in front of them. The visitors brought with them a huge slice of luck when Santiago Vergini avoided a red card after cynically bringing down Luis Suarez when the Uruguayan appeared to be through on goal with a scoring opportunity. Referee Kevin Friend however, disagreed and chose the lesser sanction of a yellow card.
The anxiety in the fans was clearly felt and the usually vocal Kop was somewhat muted and, like their team struggled to find their best form. The tension was etched on the home fans’ faces as the half wore on. The expectation of Liverpool’s now customary sprint to an early two or three goal lead evaporated and turned into the jitters. The crowded Sunderland defence thwarted Liverpool’s free-flowing, attacking style and the frustration started to show in Brendan Rodgers’ men. Just as they could bear it no longer, up stepped captain Steven Gerrard to convert the free kick awarded as a result of Vergini’s infringement on 39 minutes. In the process showing Luis Suarez how to take a free kick against stubborn opposition.
As the second half began, Sunderland’s intent to stick to their gameplay was evident but the home side had other ideas. Liverpool pressed forward and applied a certain patience to their game that was wanting in the first half. The ball was pushed forward at every opportunity and then passed round the opposition box as they probed an opening.
The midfield diamond of Gerrard at the back, the industrious Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen in the middle and Philippe Coutinho behind the front pair kept the pressure on and the reward came after 48 minutes. Another pass across the visitors’ back line from Coutinho found Henderson on the edge of the box. Daniel Sturridge only had one thing on his mind with the squared pass, shimmying to the left to unleash a deftly placed shot toward goal. The slight deflection off Wes Brown wrong-footed Vito Mannone and he watched helplessly as the net bulged for number two.
The celebration from Sturridge hinted more of pressure relieved than joy and one has to wonder if that underpinned his performance yesterday. It was definitely apparent that both he and Suarez were being particularly single minded yesterday and I have to say that it was to the detriment of the team on occasion. The Kop found it’s voice and jubilation reigned. The smell of a title tilt was evidently in the air as they sang “we’re going to win the league”. Will they? We’ll have to wait and see. Sunderland though, had other ideas.
The introduction of Adam Johnson and Ki Sung-Yeung on 61 minutes for Conor Whickham and Emanuele Giacherini showed Poyet was not here simply to spectate. The visitors began to apply some pressure of their own and the hosts were clearly rattled by this show of audacious defiance of the rules of their manor. The home defence, largely untroubled until now came under constant pressure as Sunderland pushed forward. They showed belief. They showed intent. The Kop showed angst and this seemed to transmit to the erratic unit that is the Liverpool back line who looked on as Lee Cattermole sent a rasping shot cannoning off Simon Mignolet’s bar.
Poyet’s courage bore fruit after 76 minutes. A corner from the Liverpool left caught the defence static. The delivery, just the right height for Jimmy Cranky, completely bypassed the six-foot defenders and landed for Ki to stoop and gratefully nod home to give the visitors a sniff of a share of the spoils. Liverpool were rattled and hung on for the remaining 15 minutes of the game. The fourth official’s signalling of three minutes added time was greeted by the home team and fans alike as if it was 30 and those last few minutes felt like exactly that. The Kop must have been awash with fingernails after the game, nervously chewed off in those dying minutes.
Hang on they did and the three points were in the bag. Brendan Rodgers’ men return to second place and keep the pressure on Chelsea at the top. All attention now turns to the visit of Tottenham on Sundaywho, themselves will be feeling rejuvenated after overturning a two-goal deficit against Southampton at the weekend to win 3-2 and rekindle their place in the hunt for European football qualification. If Liverpool want to keep their hopes alive there really needs to be no room for the kind of nerves that were evident against Sunderland yesterday and for me, if they don’t succeed in bringing the title home this season it will be for this reason.
I believe Liverpool can win it, but the team has to be brave. The fans must be brave. We all have to believe because belief is the difference between winners and losers. The team needs to feel the belief in the fans – in the moment and not just acting so on the way to the ground. As Muhammad Ali said “Champions aren’t made in gyms… They have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be greater than the skill”.
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