Liverpool guarantee a top four finish and edge closer to an elusive Premier League title on a crisp afternoon in Norfolk…
Relegation-threatened Norwich City always seemed likely to provide a stern test of Brendan Rodgers and his champions-elect.
And so it was to prove as the men from Merseyside, shone of England internationals Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson through injury and suspension respectively, fielded Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva in a more combative-looking line-up.
One of the defining abilities of this incomprehensible season for Liverpool has been their ability to start games quickly.
As against title rivals Manchester City last weekend, they did so once more at Carrow Road and again it was teenage sensation Raheem Sterling who was on the mark.
While his early strike seven days ago was all about composure, this one, in the 4th minute, was a rocket from distance.
Fed from the left by Luis Suarez, Sterling cut inside one opponent and let rip with an unstoppable, swerving effort from outside the box which left home goalkeeper John Ruddy flailing.
The diminutive 19-year-old had a shout for a penalty moments later, after being felled by Leroy Fer, while at the other end Gary Hopper headed a half chance over.
The former Celtic man’s effort was a rare moment of early danger for the Reds though as attack after attack from the would-be-champions carved open the hosts at will.
Shortly after Allen was superbly denied by Ruddy, Suarez made it 2-0 in the 11th minute, opening his body to side-foot home a Sterling cross into the corner.
In doing so, the Uruguayan moved onto 30 for the season and a phenomenal 12 goals in just six appearances against the Canaries.
The absence of Sturridge was clearly having no impact on Liverpool as an attacking entity with Sterling revelling in a slightly more advanced, central roll.
Defensively there were some nervy moments as the opening 25 minutes progressed with Allen twice blocking Gary Hooper efforts in a goalmouth scramble.
The Welshman was seemingly all over the field in the early exchanges; pressing and tackling anything that moved in yellow while also providing a conduit for plenty of attacking thrusts.
Norwich improved markedly in the latter stages of the half although Allen went close to putting them further behind with a low drive from distance.
Not for the first time this season, Jon Flanagan was at the heart of some robust challenges but at least his efforts were legal unlike Robert Snodgrass’ lunge on Allen which earned the midfielder a yellow card around the half hour mark.
Mohamed Sakho almost gifted the hosts a way back into the game by overplaying on the edge of his own area but fortunately centre-back partner Martin Skrtel was well placed to avert the danger.
The previously untroubled Simon Mignolet was called into action to beat away a swerving Nathan Redmond strike soon afterwards but the half ended how it began, with Liverpool looking the more dangerous.
Philippe Coutinho‘s curling strike, at the end of a fantastic free-flowing passing move, not too far away from making it 3-0.
More good defending from Skrtel kept the Canaries at bay at the start of the second half while at the other end Sterling fired a presentable opening over following an exquisite cross-field pass from Suarez to Coutinho.
The hosts finally registered in the 54th minute when a failed attempt at punching clear by Mignolet, under pressure from Bradley Johnson, fell at the feet of Hooper to slot home.
It was probably a deserved goal given the endeavour Norwich had shown since falling two behind.
The next few minutes were to prove an acid test of Liverpool’s title credentials as Norwich pushed forward with gay abandon, although Suarez was inches away from re-establishing the two goal lead.
Ultimately it was to be Sterling who eased the pressure on Rodgers’ men with a deflected strike that looped off Johnson and over an unfortunate Ruddy to put the visitors back in the driving seat.
After retrieving a sloppy Norwich pass in midfield and galloping away, the speedster looked to have taken the wrong option by going it alone but his eye-catching performance arguably deserved a slice of luck.
Mignolet went some way to redeeming his earlier error by denying Snodgrass with a fine diving save in the 68th minute.
It was the precursor to another good spell form Adams’ men as Skrtel blocked a Redmond effort before home captain Russell Martin headed the resulting corner onto the roof of the net.
A better cross from Sterling, with substitute Victor Moses waiting, would surely have settled the outcome but instead Norwich set up a tense final 10 minutes via a goal from Snodgrass.
The Scottish international rose above Flanagan to nod home a fantastic cross from left-back Martin Olsson at the far post.
Sensing a momentum change, Rodgers sent on Daniel Agger to help shore things up at the back while Adams unsurprisingly reinforced his attack.
One of the players sent on by the Norwich boss, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, was instantly involved and agonisingly close to equalising with a downward header that Mignolet did well to save.
Perhaps realising the magnitude the final few minutes were to have on their dreams of ending 24 years without a league championship, Liverpool became much more circumspect in possession.
The men in red began to slow the game down and pass the ball around rather than continuing to attack with pace and directness.
A guilt-edge miss from Lucas in injury time was to prove inconsequential as the Merseysiders successfully reached the final whistle to put themselves on the brink of an historic title.
It’s hard to fathom how Norwich find themselves so far down the standings on this evidence – there were spells when they caused us as much trouble as anyone has done all season. It was a day for showing character as much as panache but we managed to pass yet another stern test by delivering sustained periods of both.
The three points make it 11 wins in a row and, almost equally impressively, 10 away from Anfield in the league this season. In registering such feats the Reds not only guaranteed Champions League football next term but also a top three finish which means they go straight into the group stages and avoid a potentially challenging play-off.
Liverpool now have a full week to prepare for the visit of Chelsea, over whom they have extended their advantage to five points. With the Blues losing on Saturday and the game sandwiched between their two-legged European semi-final with Atletico Madrid, everything is seemingly favouring the Reds.
Seven points from the remaining three games will guarantee 24 years in the championship wilderness are finally at an end.
Raheem Sterling – There were a number of standout performers this weekend and I was very close to giving the MOTM accolade to the dynamic Allen. However, goals win games and courtesy of his two strikes, and Allen being withdrawn before the end, Sterling has edged it. The youngster is so confident at the moment and consistently producing an end product. A strong contender for the PFA Young Player of the Year accolade and a starting birth for England at this summer’s World Cup.
Mignolet, Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Flanagan, Gerrard, Lucas, Allen (Agger 81′), Coutinho (Moses 76′), Sterling, Suarez.
Unused subs: Jones, Toure, Cissokho, Alberto, Aspas.
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