Their 3-2 victory over Norwich City at Carrow Road means that the Merseysiders can no longer finish lower than third place, guaranteeing their spot in next season’s Champions’ League group stages.
Brendan Rodgers’ men have loftier aspirations, though, and are now firm favourites to win their first League title since 1990 after going five points clear at the summit thanks to this victory and Chelsea’s surprise defeat at home to relegation-threatened Sunderland.
Liverpool never like doing things the easy way, however, and they endured some nervous moments during the closing stages at Carrow Road yesterday, as Norwich fought valiantly to salvage something from a match they seemed destined to lose after only twelve minutes of play.
Goals from Sterling and Suarez gave the visitors a commanding early lead and, although Hooper pulled one back for the home side after the interval, Johnson then diverted Sterling’s effort into his own net to seemingly end the match as a contest. However, Snodgrass rose above Flanagan to head home a second for Norwich to set up a tense finale with thirteen minutes remaining.
Thankfully, the Reds weathered the storm and clinched three crucial points, leaving them three ‘cup finals’ away from making their dreams reality.
With Henderson suspended and the injured Sturridge failing to even make the match-day squad, Rodgers was forced to tweak the system that had served his side so well throughout their ten match winning run. Allen and Lucas, who both played superbly well, were introduced alongside Gerrard in the centre of the park, while Coutinho and Sterling flanked main front man Luis Suarez.
As usual, Liverpool began the match at 100mph and they scored twice to leave struggling Norwich up against the ropes. First, the magnificent Raheem Sterling was given the space to take a couple of touches before letting rip with a brilliant 25-yard drive, which flew past Ruddy and into the back of the net.
Before Norwich’s nemesis Luis Suarez then bagged his twelfth goal in six games against the Canaries, Allen went close after Coutinho’s incisive pass put him in on goal. The Welshman’s forceful strike on goal brought out a decent save from Ruddy.
The home side couldn’t keep the Uruguayan quiet for much longer, though, and, soon after, he combined with Sterling to double the Reds’ advantage and become the first Liverpool player since Ian Rush in 1986/1987 to score 30 League goals in a season. The 19-year old’s delightful square pass found the unmarked Suarez in the box and he completed the easy task of guiding the ball past Ruddy from close range with aplomb.
It was a simple yet skilful goal from the dynamic duo.
|Sterling scores a screamer...|
|...then celebrates with the boss who gave him his big break|
|Suarez gives Sterling credit for setting up his 30th League goal of the season|
But for the brilliance of Raheem Sterling, Allen would have been the man of the match yesterday, as he slotted in seamlessly in the middle of the park. The fact that Liverpool’s squad has the quality and depth to be able to enjoy seamless transitions in personnel is a testament to Rodgers’ recruitment policy and one of the key reasons why the Reds are competing for the title.
Nevertheless, Norwich, spurred on by a home crowd far more supportive of Neil Adams then they were of Chris Hughton, fought back and, with the help of Liverpool’s error-prone defence, somehow found a way back into a match in which they had appeared dead and buried.
|Mignolet's mistake allowed Hooper to score|
Buoyed by that goal, Norwich looked capable of causing Liverpool serious problems but, thankfully, the Reds enjoyed a slice of luck on the hour mark to help restore their two-goal cushion.
After Suarez shot narrowly wide, Sterling intercepted a poor square pass from Johnson and sped goalwards from the halfway line. The backtracking Johnson managed to catch up with the rapid Raheem but only succeeded in deflecting his effort over Ruddy and into the back of his own net.
Although it was impossible not to feel sorry for Johnson, who looked crushed as he held his head in his hands; that is the type of good fortune that all title winners need. The fact that Liverpool are scoring goals in that manner suggests that it might just be their season.
Another deflection fell favourably for the Reds with twenty minutes remaining when Redmond’s drive was deflected narrowly wide of the post off the head of Martin Skrtel, who was on top form yet again yesterday. From the resulting corner Russell Martin headed onto the roof of the net as Norwich commendably didn’t give up.
Their efforts were rewarded on 77 minutes, as Snodgrass rose highest, towering above Flanagan, to head Olsson’s left wing cross into the corner of the net to give Norwich hope that the Premier League might just throw up another crazy and unexpected result.
Substitute Ricky Van Wolfswinkel went closest to equalising for Norwich in the closing stages, Mignolet managing to stop his free header finding the net and thus denying the Dutch striker what would have been his first goal since the Canaries’ opening day draw at home to Everton.
After Lucas spurned a great chance to score a fourth in injury time, Norwich punted the ball into the box as even their keeper went up in a desperate attempt to steal a point, but thankfully Liverpool held firm, Flanagan and Johnson resorting to hoofing the ball clear in the dying moments.
|Job done: Stevie and Suarez congratulate each other after the final whistle|
With their goal for the season of Champions League qualification secured, it’s time for Liverpool to claim the 19th League title their performances this campaign deserve.