Liverpool recovered quickly from Thursday's disappointing Europa League exit to claim a key three points at the Stadium of Light yesterday. A controversial Dirk Kuyt spot kick and a wonder goal from Luis Suarez earned the Reds a satisfying 2-0 victory, leaving the Merseysiders four points behind fifth placed Spurs having played a game extra.
A game dominated by intriguing sub-plots, including the first meeting of Luis Suarez and Asamoah Gyan following the Uruguayan’s infamous handball at the World Cup and the return of Geordie striker Andy Carroll to face Newcastle's north east rivals, eventually swung in the Reds' favour, although some contentious officiating from referee Kevin Friend certainly contributed to the hosts' downfall.
After playing 90 exhausting minutes in midweek many, including myself, expected to see Andy Carroll begin on the bench, however Dalglish boldly selected him alongside Luis Suarez, and the pair struck up an encouraging relationship. Meanwhile, local youngster Jay Spearing was afforded another opportunity from the centre of midfield, and didn't disappoint with an assured performance next to Lucas Leiva.
Despite this the match started with the home side in the ascendancy, as Steve Bruce's Sunderland pressed high up the pitch whilst Liverpool were willing to defend deep and absorb pressure during the opening exchanges. However, although the Black Cats controlled the match, Liverpool crucially had the better chances, as Kuyt's shot was diverted wide after four minutes following Carroll's header, before the unmarked Dutchman nodded over only a minute later.
In fact, for all their dominance of possession, Sunderland failed to seriously test Reina throughout the match, with Gyan's dangerous cross flashing threateningly across the penalty area to signify their only real sight of goal. Soon after though Sunderland were forced to make two substitutions due to injury, which considerably changed the flow of the match in Liverpool's favour.
On the half hour mark the momentum fully swung in our direction, when Jay Spearing pounced on an error from John Mensah and burst forward purposefully. The Ghanaian desperately tried to recover with a lunging challenge, however he only succeeded in upending Spearing on the edge of the box.
The referee initially correctly awarded a free kick, however, after consultation with his linesman, Kevin Friend reversed his decision and pointed to the spot, infuriating the incensed home side. Dirk Kuyt stepped up to coolly slot the spot kick into the corner of the net, before joining his team-mates in completing the customary 'rocking the baby' celebration after the birth of Lucas Leiva's son Pedro Lucas this week.
Although it was clear to see with the aid of replays that a penalty should not have been given, Liverpool were due some good fortune and favourable refereeing against Sunderland following the beach ball fiasco that overshadowed our 1-0 defeat at the Stadium of Light last season.
From then on Liverpool were in control, creating several chances and always looking the more likely to score the second goal. This was demonstrated eight minutes before the break when the impressive Spearing played an incisive ball through to Suarez, whose shot was superbly stopped by a one-handed save from Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Fortunately the pattern continued in the second half, while the understanding established between new signings Carroll and Suarez developed promising. After 51 minutes Anton Ferdinand tried to out-muscle Suarez, however good play from Liverpool's number seven earned the visitors a corner. Carroll moved into space intelligently at the back post to reach the set piece and head goalwards, only for Sunderland skipper Lee Cattermole to make a brilliant goalline clearance.
Carroll was involved again moments later when advantage was played after Titus Bramble had cynically brought down the tall England striker. The play ended when Raul Meireles skied his shot high over the bar, however the referee perfectly legitimately called play back and awarded a free kick for the foul on Carroll, despite the hosts' protests. Suarez then stepped up to bend the ball inches wide of the post.
Dalglish’s well drilled troops managed to restrict the home side's attack efficiently, with Reina having virtually nothing to do for large periods. This left Sunderland searching for any route back into the match, which only caused more frustration for them when two penalty appeals were ignored.
First, the Wearsiders appealed for a penalty after the ball had clearly hit Johnson's chest, and not his hand, before a blatant dive from Gyan didn't fool the referee. Sandwiched inbetween those two incidents Jay Spearing smashed a great left footed strike goalwards from 20 yards, which forced Mignolet into a fine save.
With 12 minutes remaining Suarez sealed the three points with yet another piece of fantastic play that will live long in the memory of Reds supporters. The Uruguayan eased past a defender before netting from an impossibly audacious angle. It was a simply stunning strike, worthy of winning any game.
Following dubious refereeing decisions and several hampering injuries Sunderland's misery was finally comfounded when John Mensah, who had already been booked, received a straight red after hauling down Suarez after Reina's up-field punt had appeared to set him in on goal. Once again the home side had legitimate complaints as a straight red card was a tad harsh considering Suarez didn't have control of the ball, however the outcome remained unchanged as it was indisputably at least a bookable offence.
Ironically, with the outcome of the match already determined, Sunderland had their first shot on target when Reina easily gathered Cattermole’s strike from range four minutes from time.
The fact that the hosts had failed to test Reina prior to that point reveals the impressive defence work that provided the foundation to this crucial victory. The dynamism of Suarez and endeavour of Carroll was also pleasing to see up front, and the performance of Jay Spearing in midfield evidenced the belief that the 22-year old has what it takes to take the next step up into more regular first team action. Such an assured display away from home could also prove to be a building block towards finally reversing our wretched away form, which has plagued our efforts for over 18 months now.
Also, with strong rumours circulating that John W Henry has decided to offer Kenny Dalglish a long term contract, surely this victory must secure the legendary Scot a permanent position at the helm of the club.