Liverpool once again finish their first-half chances and keep a clean sheet, this time against Sunderland at Anfield to take all three points easily.
Liverpool 3: Sterling 19', Suarez 26' 52'
With Jose Enrique injured, one of the biggest questions coming in was how Brendan Rodgers would line up his back four. In the end he chose to return to the setup we saw for a stretch earlier in the season, with Andre Wisdom returning at right-back after a long layoff and Glen Johnson sliding over to left-back. Slightly surprising was the choice to leave Jordan Henderson in the squad; certainly no complaints here, but with Joe Allen starting in only one of the past three matches, it didn't seem as though Rodgers would favor Henderson. Ultimately he did, and the midfielder again started in a more advanced position ahead of Steven Gerrard and Lucas, with Raheem Sterling, Luis Suarez, and Stewart Downing across the front.
It was a slower start than we're used to--for all their shortcomings this season Liverpool have gotten in a habit of starting like gangbusters, but with Sunderland content to rest a bit deeper, there wasn't as much urgency from the hosts as the match settled in. Stewart Downing's free-kick from twenty-five yards was the best chance of the opening, but Simon Mignolet did well at the near post to push wide.
Liverpool inched closer and closer but failed to create anything truly dangerous, and then out of nothing they were 1-0 up. Luis Suarez knocked a long pass over the top to spring Raheem Sterling from the midfield, and with time and space the young winger waited for it to fall before lofting over Mignolet from just inside the area. It was a terrific finish from Sterling, who's struggled for confidence and form since around the time he signed his contract.
The visitors should have equalized moments later through James McClean, who latched on the end of a wonderful pass from Adam Johnson at close range. Pepe Reina did well to save, though, and knocked away the rebound to clear the danger. Minutes later Liverpool extended the lead through their Uruguayan striker, who ran onto a Gerrard punt, benefited from a perfectly-played advantage by Phil Dowd, and blasted through Mignolet rather than cutting back for Henderson.
It was finally settled in the 53rd on another Suarez goal, this time with Stewart Downing dragging his man to the near side to create space for Suarez, who received a forty-yard ball from Gerrard on his chest, took a touch, and rolled in for his second. He very nearly had his hat-trick after controlling wonderfully from a Joe Allen lob over the top, one of a number of chances Liverpool had to extend their lead, but it ended comfortably at 3-0 for the second consecutive match.
Sunderland weren't quite as bad as QPR or Fulham were, and they came far closer than either of those sides to drawing level after Liverpool opened the scoring. But this one felt more due to a very good Liverpool performance than a very bad performance from the opposition, as the hosts took control of the match on their own accord, broke through a cautious game plan with a wonderful opening goal, and avoided similar pitfalls that have seen them waste leads and give points away.
Luis Suarez led all things good that Liverpool had going today, and with more time and space in the midfield--aided by the tireless Jordan Henderson and the improved Lucas--Steven Gerrard had another solid performance. The defense was comfortable despite the shake-up, with both Andre Wisdom and Glen Johnson doing well, and Pepe Reina was excellent when called upon, most notably to deny the aforementioned chance just after Sterling's opener that could have seen Sunderland equalize. That short spell was the one downside for an otherwise very good team performance for the third time in the last five matches, and one that will hopefully continue to emerge as the norm.
What's become clear over the past month and underlined again today is just how critical the spine of the squad is to this system of play. That's not any sort of stunning insight, and it's something that we've longed to see develop on a more consistent basis. Today was a prime example of what they're able to do when the core is solid and sorted--Reina was on top form, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger imperious aside from the slight wobble after the opener, Lucas resurgent, Gerrard more patient and controlled, Henderson pressing as per usual, and Suarez giving a mindless Sunderland back line fits. Joe Allen came on in a more advanced role and impressed, and Suso's cameo in the middle gave the talented youngster a chance in his most preferred position.
Today was very fun, and even moreso than the other two wins that have seen Liverpool take nine points out of twelve over the festive period. There's still a long ways to go and more struggles to endure, and litmus tests don't come much bigger than the trip to Old Trafford in a week and a half. But in front of an Anfield crowd that included their new signing, Liverpool again impressed, and they've got a chance to continue their upward trend at Mansfield on Sunday.
Happy New Year. Let's hope it lasts.