There are worse places to be than along the turquoise shores of the Caribbean this time of year, but for Brendan Rodgers, a deserving victory on a windswept Wearside that has maintained his side’s push for European qualification will feel every bit as sweet.
Rodgers has developed a reputation for being the Liverpool manager of risks – but his latest decision to roll the dice, allowing Raheem Sterling his own extended winter break in Jamaica, was a gamble which paid off as his troops dug out a 1-0 win against ten-man Sunderland.
On this evidence, Sterling is not the only 20-year-old starlet in Rodgers’ ranks whose explosive talent is worthy of being re-charged by the occasional sprinkling of tropical sunshine.
In the absence of Sterling and Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic took his opportunity to glisten at the Stadium of Light, with a performance as illuminating as Liverpool’s yellow shirts.
The visitors should have had a penalty inside two minutes. Markovic fell under the challenge of Wes Brown after latching onto Philippe Coutinho’s through-ball. Craig Pawson and his far-side assistant were unmoved, but replays showed there was clear contact with the Serbian winger’s right leg.
No bother. Markovic dusted himself off and put Liverpool in front six minutes later. Naturally, man of the moment Steven Gerrard was involved, instigating the move with a ball into the feet of Fabio Borini. The Italian striker, a pivotal figure towards the latter stages of last season in Sunderland’s successful escape from relegation, was fouled by John O’Shea on the edge of the area, but Pawson played the advantage as the ball fell kindly for Markovic, who kept his composure to stab the ball beneath the giant figure of Costel Pantilimon.
This was Markovic’s finest hour in a Liverpool shirt. Signed for £20 million from Portuguese side Benfica last summer, the Serbian’s star potential has only flickered intermittently until now, his sending-off against Basel in his side’s early Champions League exit typical of his frustrating start to life on Merseyside.
But his early strike would prove the difference and he came agonizingly close to scoring one of the goals of the season shortly afterwards. Sunderland failed to clear a corner, and when the ball arrived at Markovic, he expertly positioned his body from 25 yards out with the acrobatics reminiscent of that Luis Suarez strike against Arsenal last season, to unleash a venomous strike that rebounded off the underside of the bar and fortuitously wide of goal via the back of Pantilimon.
Sunderland, despite the aid of a gusty wind on their backs in the first half, offered little danger to Liverpool’s goal in an opening period that lacked any fluidity. The Black Cats’ 75 chances created at home this season prior to the game was the fewest of any Premier League side, and their lack of creativity again stultified the atmosphere of the 44,000 present.
The isolated figure of Connor Wickham was starved of any service, and the midfield engine room was palpably missing the tenacity and spark of the absent Lee Cattermole and Jack Rodwell.
For Liverpool, the media focus may remain on a protracted exit of Gerrard between now and the end of the season, but there was no signs of his supporting cast lurking in his shadow here.
Lucas Leiva, who had been linked in the morning papers with a move to Inter Milan, retained his place alongside Henderson in deep-lying midfield roles, allowing Coutinho, Gerrard and Markovic to wreak havoc in the attacking third.
The visitors were winning every battle. Coutinho found Henderson, but the former Sunderland man was penalized for controlling the ball with his hand before crashing the ball against Pantilimon’s left-hand post. Gerrard was next to fancy his chances, first rifling the ball into the side-netting before forcing the Romanian stopper into a smart save low down.
Borini missed a glorious chance to double Liverpool’s advantage on the stroke of half-time when put through by Emre Can. The former Chelsea striker had scored only once from 23 shots this season, but with five of his last eight league goals coming on Wearside, few inside the ground would have expected him to put his finish wide after rounding Pantilimon.
The half-time whistle couldn’t have come soon enough for Gus Poyet, his side second to every ball, easily hounded out of the limited possession they could wrestle from their sprightly opponents and flattered by only the one-goal deficit at the break.
Sunderland were kept in for a prolonged team-talk by Poyet, and the sight of Gerrard not retuning for the restart, due to a ‘tightness in one of his legs’, may have provided extra incentive to the hosts. But it appeared any plans of a frantic response upon the game’s resumption was curtailed within four minutes by the dismissal of Liam Bridcutt after a foul on Can.
The former Brighton midfielder could have few complaints about his two bookable offences, having cynically fouled Gerrard earlier in the match, but Poyet showed no desire to plug the hole and the set-back initially galvanized the home side. Adam Johnson, who had been a peripheral figure until the sending-off, rattled the crossbar with a swerving shot that bamboozled Simon Mignolet.
With less of a defensive shield in front of Sunderland’s defence, Liverpool looked to pick off their opponents on the break, with the influence of chief conspirator Coutinho increasing upon the introduction of Mario Balotelli with 20 minutes remaining.
Sunderland remained in the game until the end courtesy of the slender advantage Liverpool held, but the side’s lack of penetration that has been its Achilles heel all season made this a comfortable final quarter for Rodgers.
For Poyet and Sunderland, who remain three points above the drop zone ahead of Saturday’s remaining Premier League fixtures, if any further evidence of the need to invest in greater attacking options was required for the club’s director of football Lee Congerton, this was it.