Liverpool survive a nervy final 15 minutes to claim a crucial three points in their pursuit of a first Premier League crown…
In front of their own fans for the first time in over a month, the Reds remained unchanged from the side which defeated Cardiff City at the weekend.
For the visitors, on-loan Liverpool forward Fabio Borini was ineligible but another familiar face, full-back Andrea Dossena, was handed a rare appearance.
The hosts made their customary fast start with a succession of attacks down the right and a Luis Suarez free-kick.
Both keepers remained largely untested during the opening half hour though as neither side could muster much in the way of clear-cut openings.
Unsurprisingly the hosts were enjoying the majority of possession but Sunderland’s deep, five-man defence coped admirably where so many others had capitulated in recent times.
As the half wore on a noticeable nervousness began to envelope a sellout Anfield crowd clearly mindful of how important three points were to their title aspirations.
A decisive moment finally arrived in the 37th minute when Suarez was felled by Santiago Vergini as he looked to latch onto a Philippe Coutinho through-ball.
The Argentine defender seemed to be the last man and was extremely fortunate to escape with just a yellow card from referee Kevin Friend.
Any disappointment over the decision was soon replaced with ecstasy as Steven Gerrard thumped the resulting free-kick into the top-right hand corner of Vito Mannone’s net.
Despite becoming a more peripheral figure in recent times, Liverpool can still rely on their inspirational skipper, as shown against Manchester United earlier this month, to deliver when they need him most.
Sunderland reacted well to falling behind with Connor Wickham forcing a good diving stop out of Simon Mignolet via a deflection off Martin Skrtel.
Vergini was again lucky to remain on the pitch on the stroke of half-time as a scything tackle on Suarez somehow went unpunished with a second booking.
The second half continued with the hosts almost exclusively on the front foot; Suarez slicing a presentable opening high and wide inside 90 seconds of the restart.
A crucial second Liverpool goal arrived two minutes later when a move from left to right ended up at the feet of Daniel Sturridge.
The England international showed good feet to cut onto his left before bending a shot, with the aid of a deflection off Wes Brown, into the far corner.
It will certainly go down as a Sturridge goal though and it was his 20th of a brilliant season.
Referee Friend was again kind to the Black Cats immediately after the resumption; ignoring a cynical trip by Lee Cattermole on Suarez as the league’s top scorer looked to burst into the box and pull the trigger.
At the other end, Phil Bardsley had a low effort comfortably saved by Mignolet but by now it was all Liverpool with attack after attack heading towards the Kop.
Suarez inadvertently blocked a goal-bound Sturridge effort before seeing his own attempt from the rebound kept out by Mannone.
A number of further opportunities followed as the Merseysiders, who scored six at the weekend and have hit five goals on four other occasions this season, threatened to run riot once more.
Sunderland had a period of pressure around the hour mark which coincided with the double introduction of Adam Johnson and Ki Sung-Yueng.
The game then became much more open in the final 20 minutes and Cattermole was incredibly unfortunate not to score with a long-range effort which thumped the underside of the bar.
Sturridge followed suit for the Reds seconds later, leaving Mannone beaten all ends up with a fine curling effort.
Coutinho had a strong penalty appeal ignored by Friend after going down under a challenge from John O’Shea. The Brazilian appeared to slip but there was also noticeable contact.
Finally, in the 76th minute, Sunderland got a goal that their continued endeavour had probably deserved.
Not for the first time this campaign it was aided by poor defending at a corner as Jon Flanagan allowed Ki to head home unmarked at the back post.
The goal setup a nervy final period with the men in red temporarily uncertain whether to stick or twist.
Gus Poyet’s relegation-threatened side increasingly piled the pressure on in the dying minutes but the partisan home crowd helped to push their beloved side over the line.
There was a spell at the beginning of the second half when we threatened to run away with it and give our goal difference another welcome boost. They always used to say getting a two-goal lead was vital in the Premier League but for us it is seemingly a three-goal buffer needed to make things truly safe!
Despite a number of heart-in-mouth moments towards the end, it was a deserved three points. You cannot expect to score five or six in every game and it was encouraging to see the resolve of the players to see a tough job through.
Sunderland must also get a lot of credit for the way they approached the game after falling behind. Many teams would have continued to sit back and try to avoid a hammering but instead they went onto the front foot and tried to take the game to us. On this evidence they must surely avoid the drop?
As for us, just like Brendan Rodgers continually states, we merely move onto the next game. Although clearly the possibilities and excitement over what might be are growing!
Philippe Coutinho – The diminutive Brazilian was at his creative best against the Black Cats. Twisting, turning, picking out passes. Importantly, his fitness and work-rate have improved markedly on when he first joined.
Mignolet, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Flanagan, Gerrard, Henderson, Allen, Coutinho, Suarez, Sturridge (Sterling 77′).
Unused subs: Jones, Sakho, Cissokho, Lucas, Moses, Aspas.
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