Suarez 26' 53'
One team took its chances. The other team didn't. This time, Liverpool were the former rather than the latter.
Also, Luis Suarez is really good at football. Like, really good. Really, really good.
It could have been very different had Sunderland converted shots at opportune moments. Three minutes after Sterling's opener, McClean should have leveled matters. McClean, Sessegnon, and Fletcher sliced through Liverpool's final third, McClean received the return pass in space between Skrtel and Wisdom, and from eight yards out, somehow screwed his shot just wide of the far post. It was the exact sort of stomach punch Liverpool had endured over and over and over again this season. For once, they didn't pay for it. Four minutes after that, Liverpool were two ahead.
Then, in the 35th minute, Reina came to the rescue. Larsson hammered a free kick (one of Sunderland's six first half free kicks in Liverpool's half) into the wall, with the ball ricocheting straight to Adam Johnson, who chipped the ball over the top to an unmarked Kilgallon at the back post. Somehow, Reina not only stopped the point-blank shot but kept Fletcher from reaching the rebound. It wouldn't have had the same impact at the earlier potential equalizer, but 2-1 is a lot more dangerous scoreline than 2-0, especially going into halftime.
Take nothing away from Liverpool's performance. Or Liverpool's goals for that matter, each a beautiful, unique snowflake. My favorite was probably the first, but it's like picking between children. No answer is the wrong answer.
Unsurprisingly, Suarez was heavily involved in all three: providing a perfect assist for the opener, scoring the next two himself. But he had an awful lot of help, mainly from Sterling and Gerrard – the former scoring the brilliant first, the latter responsible for starting the move which led to all three goals.
For the first, Gerrard won possession, out-battling McClean in the air on a goal kick, feeding Suarez, whose chipped pass was ideal for Sterling's perfectly-timed run, finding space behind the closest defenders but ensuring he stayed onside. The finish wasn't bad either – waiting, waiting, waiting until Mignolet committed, then deftly lofting the ball over his head, just out of reach. It was a cool, clever finish which belied his age.
The captain's interception, against sent straight to Suarez, was the crucial touch in the second move, but the rest was all Suarez, staying on his feet despite Cuellar's foul, bursting into the box, and then ignoring both Henderson and Sterling to take a less-likely shot that Mignolet couldn't keep out. He's lucky it went in. But Liverpool's lucky he's theirs. You don't begrudge him that strike when he's scored so many already this season. Unless it doesn't go in, obviously.
That the third came so soon after the interval demoralized Sunderland; from there, despite O'Neill's changes – bringing on Fraizer Campbell for Sessegnon at halftime, shifting to 4-4-2 – it was a matter of how many Liverpool would score. Lucas' tackle won possession, Liverpool patiently built play in its own half for more than a minute, and after lulling Sunderland to sleep, Gerrard delivered a remarkable 50-yard pass to put Suarez through on goal, splitting Gardner and Cuellar (helped by Downing dragging the latter out of position with a run across the pitch), beautiful control to take him by Mignolet, then a tap-in.
As against QPR, Liverpool's lead allowed Rodgers to make changes, resting players who needed the break. Allen replaced Sterling, Suso came on for Henderson, and Carragher spelled Skrtel. Liverpool's smartly killed the game off, not to the almost-dreary extent they shut matters down against QPR, but Sunderland never once looked like getting a consolation. Fletcher and Campbell needed binoculars to find the ball.
Unfortunately, Liverpool couldn't add to its tally, twice denied by the linesman's flag with the ball in the back of the net: first from Johnson, running onto Allen's throughball, then Allen himself, hammering in Downing's cutback. Incidentally, both decisions were the correct ones, even if totally not fun. Mignolet also denied other attempts from Johnson and Suarez, while Allen had a shot blocked and a third narrowly wide of the near post. Liverpool's players seemingly tried harder to get Allen a first goal than Suarez a hat-trick. Which was fun.
Keeping the same midfield three as against Sunderland led to similar success, ensuring Liverpool had better movement and better pressing from the front, all while keeping possession as per usual. Henderson again did well in the advanced role, Gerrard was – no exaggeration – at his best in a deeper role, and Lucas constantly clean up in Liverpool's half, as Lucas does. Liverpool's work rate both in and out of possession in this section of the pitch was phenomenal, as was Sterling, Downing, and Suarez's from the front. Gerrard and Downing each created six chances. After a couple of uncertain early touches, Wisdom soon settled, silencing both Johnson and McClean when they ran in his direction and even joining the attack on occasion. Meanwhile, Glen Johnson remains as good on the left as he is on the right. He is the best fullback in Britain. This is not up for discussion.
Most importantly, as always, Liverpool succeed when Liverpool take its chances, especially early chances. If Sterling scores goals like those, if Suarez gets his shots on target, and if Gerrard, Downing, and Henderson (and Allen!) can contribute in attack as they did tonight, Liverpool will win many more matches than they lose or draw. It really is that simple, and just reinforces what we said after all those disappointing draws earlier in the season.
That's 4-0, 3-0, and 3-0 wins in three of the last four matches during this festive season, no matter the shallow squad and fatigue typical of this period. That, coupled with a shiny new striker to play with over the coming games and years, seems an excellent start to 2013.