Sterling 4' 62'
"You didn't think it was gonna be that easy, did you?" "For a second there, yeah I kinda did…"
When Gerrard shouted, "We go to Norwich. Exactly the same. We go again.” in the aftermath of last week's victory, I don't think this is what he meant.
With two Liverpool goals within 11 minutes, you figured it'd be another crushing victory at Carrow Road. The absence of both Sturridge and Henderson seemed irrelevant. Lucas and Allen come in, Rodgers changes the formation to a 4-3-2-1 christmas tree – the eighth different formation we've seen this season – and Sterling runs riot, an atomic bomb from distance to open the scoring, then a perfect assist after a long passing move so Suarez can continue his Canary killing streak.
But rather than keeping the boot on Norwich's neck, Liverpool began to play passively, happy to soak up pressure, look to counter, and if it wasn't on, keep possession in its own half.
On the whole, it worked well enough for 45 minutes. Liverpool did well to limit Norwich's chances, led by Joe Allen, who made seven tackles and won 11 of 12 ground duels in the first half. Allen's two crucial blocks following a Norwich set play, Mignolet parrying Redmond's shot from distance, and Redmond's shot-slash-cross wide were Norwich's only chances of the half. Unfortunately, no matter how well Sterling played – and it was quite well – Liverpool's counter-attack isn't the same without Daniel Sturridge. Liverpool's only two threatening moments after the opening goals were Allen's shot from distance in the 26th minute and Coutinho's curler just before halftime, both narrowly wide of the far post.
The match would have been very different had Robert Snodgrass been sent off for an incredibly frustrated tackle on Allen in the 29th minute, both very late and high. But Snodgrass wasn't sent off, Marriner most likely taking pity on a two-goals-down, relegation-battling Norwich at home. And then that second half happened.
Liverpool began the same way after the restart, but were facing a very different Norwich. Neil Adams shifted the system, changing to more of a 4-2-3-1 with Redmond and Snodgrass playing wider and getting at Liverpool's fullbacks, getting crosses into the box. And those crosses troubled Liverpool, those crosses led to both of Norwich's goals.
The first was eminently regrettable. The first simply should not have happened. Skrtel had been imperious all match long, but when Whittaker crossed from deep following a throw-in, Mignolet rushed out of his goal to try to punch rather than leaving it for the Slovakian. Heeding the keeper's call, Skrtel didn't contest Bradley Johnson's header, but also couldn't get out of the way, meaning Mignolet made weak contact with the ball, pushing it directly into an unmarked Hooper's path.
The second was almost as bad. Another cross from a Norwich fullback – this time Olsson, this time the opposite flank – Flanagan wholly out-muscled and out-jumped by Snodgrass, a free header that Mignolet had no chance of keeping out. Such are the perils of a formation that concedes the flanks, especially with neither Liverpool fullback covering himself in glory in the second half.
Sandwiched between Norwich's strikes was a goal that should have sealed the game. Finally, a counter-attack coming to fruition, even if fortunately: Sterling intercepting Johnson's hospital ball across the pitch and tearing at three Norwich defenders along with Suarez. Suarez was the decoy as Sterling kept running, cutting inside, seemingly overplaying but a fortunate deflection off Johnson looped his shot over Ruddy. It's better to be lucky and good, etc.
Liverpool had had a few chances on the break following Hooper's strike, but Suarez's first was hit tamely at Ruddy, his second drifted just. Both were chances you'd expect him to seize, especially against his favorite opposition. But it was Raheem Sterling who got the break and made the break-through.
Once again, you'd expect Liverpool to keep the boot on Norwich's neck after scoring the third. But it was Stoke, Sunderland, Cardiff, City all over again, with Liverpool hanging on by fingernails and heart attacks for everyone. Agger's introduction for Allen in the 81st minute, switching to something of a 5-2-3, helped matters, but Norwich could and should have equalized in the 83rd: another deep cross, this time from Redmond, but van Wolfswinkel's header after eluding Sakho was straight at Mignolet. Liverpool were very lucky that chance fell to a player who hadn't scored since opening day, who has just nine shots on target all season.
Thankfully, that was Norwich's last terrifying chance despite continued possession, and Liverpool could and should have made in 4-2 in injury time. First, Suarez volleyed high and wide, but in the the 93rd minute, a Liverpool break and typical tricky feet from Suarez led to two Lucas (!!!) chances from eight yards out. Ruddy saved the first, Olsson blocked the second. It had to be Lucas. Sigh.
No matter. Liverpool held on. They've had so many chances to shit the bed in the final 10-15 minutes during this 11-match winning streak: at Cardiff, Sunderland, and West Ham; against Fulham, Swansea, and City. But they haven't. They've somehow held their nerve, somehow held on for the win, winning six of these 11 matches by a single goal.
Despite the blitzkrieg start, today's match obviously left a lot to be desired. Sterling, Skrtel, Allen (especially in the first half), and Gerrard were excellent, but Liverpool's fullbacks disappointed and Liverpool's defense still looks rickety at times. As much as I love Lucas, that wasn't his position, and I'm not sure he has a position with the way Liverpool (and Gerrard) have been playing. Rodgers' alterations with both Sturridge and Henderson absent started well, but couldn't and didn't last, and Liverpool weaknesses in depth were exemplified by Moses's introduction, first off the bench but adding next to nothing.
But none of that matters. It's three more points, it's an 11th straight win. Liverpool have now qualified for the Champions League group stage; they cannot finish worse than third. More importantly, Liverpool lead the league by five points with three matches left.
This is gone. We go against Chelsea. Maybe not exactly the same, but we go again.
Three more games for greatness.