Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Pennant Mascherano Gerrard Lucas
Gerrard 89’ (pen)
It was an odd looking line-up, with Lucas on the left and Carragher at right back, and for 57 minutes, Sunderland did excellently to stifle Liverpool. But finally, Liverpool was able to take a lead, get a second (and third), and keep the clean sheet. It’s been a long time coming.
The end result is unfair on Sunderland. They defended immaculately until the first goal. Like at the Stadium of Light in August, Nosworthy matched Torres well, Gordon made some good saves, and Sunderland hassled from the strikers to the defense, giving Liverpool little space, especially in Sunderland’s half.
Even had it stayed 0-0, I would have begrudgingly admitted Liverpool played better. I would have been furious at another draw, but Liverpool had looked more inventive, although there wasn’t much room to regress. While the home side carved out few chances in the first half, it was mainly due to Sunderland’s tactics, and both Liverpool’s passing and movement was better.
Pennant and Mascherano were keys to that. With Lucas looking to cut in (he wasn’t comfortable on the left, although I can’t blame Rafa for playing him there with Liverpool’s other options) and Aurelio off the pace (he was substituted for Finnan, who stayed on the left, at halftime), much of Liverpool’s width came from the right. Pennant beat his man to good effect and was able to get a variety of crosses into the box, in the process setting up Liverpool’s best chance of the first half, a header from Torres that was too close to Gordon.
Meanwhile, Mascherano was absolutely everywhere in midfield, preventing Sunderland from gaining much of a toe-hold, and forcing sloppy passes and mistakes by the opposition’s midfield. He was an absolute machine today.
But despite Liverpool’s better play, they were still lacking in the final third, a story we’ve heard before.
Finally, in the 57th minute, Crouch broke the deadlock. Carragher, who did well to get forward from right back all game long (helped by the fact Sunderland offered little in attack), worked out space and sent in an inch-perfect cross for Crouch, who made no mistake with his header down into the bottom corner. It clearly took pressure off Liverpool, and was deserved after starting the second half with more attacking impetus.
And more importantly, Liverpool didn’t let up after scoring. We saw it against Villa, Wigan, and Havant recently; Liverpool has had a nasty tendency to let the opposition back into the game after scoring and give up a soft equalizer. But not today.
You could see the increased confidence after the opener. Liverpool kept pressure on their opponents, created more chances, and was rewarded with a second 12 minutes later, putting the game out of reach. Again Crouch was involved, flawlessly heading the ball on into Torres’ path, where he was able to take it down in stride and send Gordon the wrong way.
Sunderland’s best chances came after Liverpool scored their second and eased off the tempo, which is a bit annoying, but given Liverpool’s previous struggles to score and the fact that Sunderland had offered little in attack, it wasn’t that surprising. And Liverpool was lucky not to concede two penalties, which could have made for a more nerve-wracking finish.
In the 73rd minute the ball struck Carra’s arm in the box (seriously, what’s going on here?), while Mascherano could have been called for a high boot in the 77th. However, I can’t feel too bad for Sunderland after being given the short shrift by Styles in the last Liverpool game he was in charge of.
The icing on the cake came in the 89th minute after Nosworthy brought Pennant down in the box, making another good run down the right on the break. Gerrard stepped up to make the scoreline harsh on Sunderland, but three goals and a clean sheet will be a great boon to Liverpool’s confidence, and hopefully this is a corner turned, although that’s been written before.
Despite Mascherano’s all-action performance and Pennant’s dangerous play, I still reckon Crouch has to be man of the match. There were periods where he drifted out of the game, and periods where I’d be screaming at the television because of lost possession, but he scored the opener and set up Torres’ goal. The goal clearly helped his confidence, and he was unlucky not to score a second minutes later with a delicious scissored volley that Gordon superbly kept out.
Even when Crouch wasn’t at his best, he still chips in with a goal and an assist, and is the difference in Liverpool getting the win. If we’re going by the sum of the 90 minutes, Crouch wasn’t the best on the field (Mascherano was), but he was involved in two goals, and that’s what Liverpool’s needed.
I also thought Skrtel was superb today. He was helped by having Carragher and Hyypia on either side of him, but Skrtel was imperious in the air, closed down well, and made none of the missteps that plagued his debut. It was clear why Rafa paid a record fee for him, and once Agger returns there will be serious competition for places.
Finally, the first victory in the league since Boxing Day. With a spell like this, I don’t care how the three points come, just that Liverpool leaves with all three. And while it wasn’t the most-dominating performance, and Sunderland is a team that struggles on the road (2 points picked up all season), that Liverpool was able to get three goals in the second half while keeping a clean sheet will certainly do.
It goes without saying that it’s a much-needed confidence boost, but there’s clearly more progress that has to be made. And Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in eight days will be a far different challenge.