Carragher Skrtel Agger Johnson
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Meireles
Kuyt 33' (pen)
It wouldn't be Liverpool-Sunderland of recent years without a refereeing controversy. Last season's fixture saw the infamous beach ball. This season's previous meeting featured the free kick that wasn't. And today's game turned on a contentious penalty.
Sunderland began strongly as Liverpool struggled to win or keep the ball. But, as would persist throughout the match, they couldn't convert possession into opportunities, something Liverpool's all too familiar with. The away side created the early chances, albeit both from set plays; Mignolet saved Kuyt's shot from Carroll's knock-down before the Dutchman headed over on the subsequent corner.
The Mackems continued to impress without reward, unable to breach Liverpool's back four, before being fortuitously beaten on the break. Spearing, surprisingly excellent throughout, both started the move and won the spot kick. Laying off for Meireles after intercepting a Sunderland hoof, the midfielder burst forward immediately to give Lucas an outlet. The Brazilian's pass went awry, but Mensah's mis-control allowed the Liverpudlian in. Clipped outside the box, Kevin Friend initially signaled for a free kick, but conceded to his linesman, who called for the spot kick. Sunderland will complain heartily, and I almost sympathize, but Liverpool will argue that the foul continued into the box. And I'll argue that life isn't fair and what goes around comes around. Eventually. Kuyt tailed the penalty to prolong his goals record against Northeastern clubs, having already scored in the reverse fixture and at Newcastle.
Instead of coalescing behind a bad decision, Sunderland retreated, further hampered by having to make two changes prior to conceding – both Muntari and Richardson went off injured before the 23rd minute, replaced by Cattermole and Malbranque respectively. Liverpool could have extended the lead in the 37th if not for Mignolet, saving Suarez's fierce shot after a ball over the top from Spearing.
Sunderland returned to first half form immediately after the interval, but found themselves increasingly exposed on the break and permanently exposed on set plays. Cattermole amazingly cleared Carroll's header (again from a corner) off the line in the 51st. Meireles blasted over on the break three minutes later, and when that was called back for a foul on Carroll, Suarez nearly scored from the free kick.
Bruce's last throw of the dice, replacing the recently-returned Welbeck with Elmohamady on the hour mark, prefaced Sunderland's last fitful spell of pressure. Excellent defending from Agger, Johnson, and Spearing kept Reina from needing to contribute.
Soon after, Liverpool sealed the result. Spearing's left-footed blast well-saved by Mignolet was the overture to Suarez's 77th-minute virtuoso symphony. Released down the byline by Kuyt, Suarez paced past Cattermole before unleashing an unthinkable close range shot from absolutely no angle, outside of the foot over an incredulous Mignolet at the near post. Mensah's straight red in the 81st, rugby-tackling the irrepressible Uruguayan on a ball over the top, was unnecessary confirmation of Liverpool's victory. Down to 10 men and down by two goals, at least Sunderland finally got a shot on target in the 86th: Henderson straight down Reina's throat with Liverpool wasting time until the final whistle.
Despite Liverpool's luck with the opener, the win was comprehensive and comfortable by the end. It was a refreshingly-thorough away victory when we've been treated to so much dross on the road. Suarez deserves the plaudits he'll get for an all-action performance capped by a jaw-dropping goal, but Spearing was absolutely superb; it was easily his best game for the club, and necessary with Lucas surprisingly inconsistent for probably the first time all season. Carroll obviously lacks sharpness, but again threw his weight around, winning almost everything lumped in his direction, aware of Suarez lurking threateningly at all times. Finally, Agger's return can't be understated. There's no coincidence that he came back into the side and Reina barely needed to pay attention. Or that he came back into the side and Liverpool's hoofs decreased by a factor of 10. The 4-2-2-2 formation, while conceding possession far too cheaply in the first half and often narrow against a packed midfield, bent but never broke.
This was exactly the response needed after Thursday. A victory, a clean sheet, a sign of greater things to come with Carroll and Suarez, and some promise for the future with Spearing's performance. Now, one game at a time and every other related cliché, and come what may come May.