Robbie Moore walks us through Sunday’s Norwich game as Liverpool move five clear of Chelsea at the top of the Premier League.
It was a nerve-racking game, as has become custom over the last week or two, but the Reds yet again showed their resolve and hunger.
Liverpool capitalised on a glorious chance to break away from their title rivals on Sunday afternoon at Carrow Road after both Chelsea and Manchester City had dropped vital points in the days before. The Reds just stumbled over the finish line to win 3-2 against a fired-up Norwich side, who were playing their first home match under caretaker manager Neil Adams and now face a huge struggle to stay in the top league in England.
Norwich made one change from the team that lost a relegation 6 pointer against Fulham last weekend. The misfiring Ricky van Wolfswinkel, who hasn’t scored since the opening day of the season against Everton, was removed from the starting line up for Gary Hooper. The home team opted for a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield, with Nathan Redmond lining up next to Hooper; the former is better known as a winger than a striker.
Liverpool had 2 notable absences from their match day squad. Daniel Sturridge, after suffering a hamstring problem a week earlier against Man City, was deemed unready to play or even take a place on the bench. Meanwhile, midfield stalwart Jordan Henderson was ruled out due to a 3-match ban he received as a result of his late red card for a tackle on Samir Nasri last time out. This opened the door for not only a change of personnel in the starting XI, but also a change in formation. Brendan Rodgers brought in Joe Allen to replace Sturridge and Lucas Leiva for Henderson. The 4-3-3 of last week became a flexible 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, similar to Norwich, which Rodgers has reverted to frequently of late, more often during games though rather than from the start. The formation also allowed Liverpool to go to a 4-2-3-1 formation when on the back foot for more defensive security.
It was a typically fast start from the Reds – so fast, in fact, that they made a vital break through with their first attempt. Coutinho had the ball out wide, and rolled it into the path of young Raheem Sterling. The 19-year old tricked his way past 2 yellow shirts and caught everyone by surprise by unleashing a venomous 25 yard strike. Taking a slight suspicion of a deflection en-route, the ball pounded John Ruddy’s net. A 4th minute lead for the title favourites after just 4 minutes, and a hug for Rodgers from Sterling, reflecting the unity of the team and indeed the potential significance of that goal.
Norwich, not too shocked by the lightening strike from Sterling, mounted their first attack shortly afterwards. Hooper stretched his neck to head a ball that was a little too high for him. Ultimately unthreatening but definitely more positive from the Canaries, who need whatever they can get from their merciless run in. Liverpool replied swiftly, as Coutinho clipped a cute pass into Allen’s path. The Welshman volleyed it towards Ruddy from a tight angle, but the ‘keeper dealt with it well.
Buoyed by the great chance, Liverpool went on to double their lead in the 11th minute. After an impressive spell of possession, Jon Flanagan picked out Sterling’s run superbly. The lively winger-turned-second-striker passed across the box perfectly for Luis Suarez to calmly slot the ball in past Ruddy. Sterling added to his goal with that assist, while Suarez claimed his 30th league goal of the season. 2-0 to Liverpool, who looked as if they were in fine fettle and could go on and dominate proceedings.
Norwich’s attempts to gain a foothold in the match came through the medium of crossing: corner, wide free kicks, from deep. One man who was keeping Norwich’s hopes of earning a result alive was Redmond, who earned copious amounts of free kicks and corners against Johnson and Skrtel. One man, however, who was defusing most threats was Allen, who’s tackling when tracking back and ability to keep possession no matter what the scenario was invaluable to Liverpool’s defence.
It was Allen who attempted to tilt the run of play back in the Reds’ direction after enduring a less-than-comfortable spell of pressure from the home side. Seizing on a bobble, he took a shot from 30 yards, which bent just wide past the far post; an unlucky moment for the goal-shy midfielder. Allen was then the victim of a horror challenge from Robert Snodgrass, who was lucky not to see a red card produced.
Sick of allowing Liverpool to have so much possession across the back four, Norwich started to press high up the pitch. This earned them a chance when Sakho was crowded out on the edge of his own box and a resulting cross seemed destined to reach Hooper, but was only just prevented by a Skrtel clearance. It seemed Liverpool were causing more problems for the Reds’ defence than Norwich were. Johnson misplaced a pass at the back to give the dangerous Redmond a sight at goal. His long ranged strike stung Mignolet’s palms and his parry was cleared.
Norwich were restricting Liverpool’s passing game, but Norwich themselves were only creating chances from corners. During play, there was a lovely moment from the home crowd, as they applauded the Liverpool’s fans choruses of ‘Justice for the 96’.
The table toppers were only dealing with Norwich’s threats thanks to aerial dominance, though there was a late scare in the first half for the Canaries when Coutinho flashed a curling effort past Ruddy’s far post. Both Norwich and Liverpool hung on until half time, with the score being a flattering 2-0 for Liverpool.
In the first half, Liverpool had been their own worst enemy. After their incredible start, they lacked creativity and, had it not been for the defensive prowess of the likes of Skrtel, Sakho and even Allen, the score line could have looked a lot different and the situation could have been much worse for Liverpool. Allen and Sterling had been outstanding for the Reds; Sterling with his brilliant goal and assist, and Allen with his Henderson-like performance had been, obviously, huge factors in Liverpool’s two goal advantage. Redmond had also been a top performer in the first half, earning countless free kicks with his trickery. He was keeping Norwich’s slim hopes of a result alive.
Liverpool looked better in the early stages of the second half than they had in the latter stages of the first, as an amazing Suarez pass found Coutinho in the box. The Brazilian laid it off for Sterling, whose left footed shot cannoned just over. The youngster was clearly annoyed that he hadn’t hit the target.
That miss looked worse when Norwich found a route back into the game via a Mignolet mistake. The Belgian leapt up to punch away a reasonably good cross – but not one that should’ve caused as much of an issue as it did – and missed the ball. It fell kindly into the path of Hooper, who welcomed the chance with arms as open as the net, slotting home in the 54th minute. Liverpool’s lead was halved and Norwich were lifted. Flashbacks of Man City’s second half comeback last weekend must have been flying through every Liverpudlian head at this point.
Norwich continued to look dangerous while Liverpool looked shaky. Through the barrage of Norwich crosses and chances, Johnson managed to carve out an attack for the away team. The right back fed Suarez as he entered the box, shimmied away from two challenges and curved an effort incredibly close to Ruddy’s far post. It was a good chance wasted; ominous, considering what had happened moments before.
Exactly the opposite happened this time, however. When you’re in a title challenge, you need some big slices of luck to help you on your way. Liverpool received just that. Sterling pounced on a loose ball in midfield and, from his own half, rushed into the Norwich box, eventually letting fly in space. The effort hit the underside of Bradley Johnson and looped over the outstretched hand of Ruddy, dropping painfully, for the home team anyway, into the net. Sterling had his second of the game and had regained the two goal lead for his team. Everything was suddenly much rosier for Liverpool now.
Norwich weren’t prepared to give up, of course. The riled Snodgrass posed a threat to Mignolet, as his 25 yard effort could only be pushed wide by the keeper. Redmond also had an effort from distance, with this one hitting the head of Skrtel and deflecting wide. The resulting corner fell on the roof of the net following Martin’s shouldered attempt.
Rodgers made his first change of the match, dragging off Coutinho for Victor Moses. Before the tactical change had a chance to show, the nervy times had returned…
Robert Snodgrass beat Flanagan to an important header, and the ball dipped over Mignolet into the goal. Out of nowhere, Norwich were back in the game and it was back-to-the-wall time again for Liverpool, whose title credentials were receiving a thorough going over here. Could they hang on for 3 crucial points?
Through this, Adams had made 2 changes: Josh Murphy replaced Leroy Fer, as did van Wolfswinkel with the scorer of Norwich’s first, Gary Hooper. Meanwhile, Daniel Agger returned to action for the first time since he picked up a slight injury which had allowed Sakho back into the team. Here though, he replaced the impressive Joe Allen to bring the shutters down at the back. This didn’t stop Johnson behaving sloppily though, as his slip let Norwich charge into the box. He got back in time to block a cross, leading to a corner, which was taken short. It was then crossed in by the busy Redmond, who found Ricky van Wolfswinkel. The striker had an unbelievable chance to silence the boo-boys with a header in the 6 yard box that would surely find the target. Instead, he fired it straight at Mignolet. Disappointing, but it showed Norwich were looking for a result and Liverpool would have to do some desperate defending to stay in the lead during these closing stages.
The only chance Liverpool had in the last few minutes to sure up the win was a speculative 30 yard volley from Suarez, which never looked like troubling Ruddy. In the 4 minutes of added time, Ruddy then found himself in the opposition box, searching for a goal which would surely seal a point for the Canaries.
Ultimately, Ruddy’s and indeed every yellow shirted player’s efforts were in vain. The full time whistle blew to bring the curtains down on a brilliant show that had ended in a vital 3-2 win for the Anfield club who, as a result, go 5 points clear at the top the Premier League.
Liverpool showed their recently-found resilience to grind out a 1 goal win, as they had done at West Ham and against Man City a week before, earning an 11th consecutive win in the process.
It was a game lit up by, not just 5 goals, but also 3 brilliant performances; Raheem Sterling, Joe Allen and Nathan Redmond. Sterling played a vital part in all 3 goals, scoring 2 and assisting the other. He also started numerous counter-attacks with his pace and skill, as well as using his muscle in a defensive manner. We’re becoming used to the young man putting in mature performances, no matter where he’s deployed. Joe Allen is a much maligned figure in the Liverpool squad, but he displayed today why Rodgers spent so much money on him during his first transfer window as manager. His ball retention was the sort of attribute that is expected from him. He also played a huge part in Liverpool’s defence, and could have bagged himself a goal. Nathan Redmond was tipped to be one of Norwich’s main threats, and that he was. As previously stated, he earned so many free kicks for Norwich out wide that it became their main source of attack. The versatile youngster, similar to Sterling, put in a performance ahead of his years and is a very bright spark in the Canaries squad; he could be a catalyst for their survival.
It’s Chelsea at home next for Liverpool, which could be the biggest step towards their first Premier League title ever, while Norwich’s next 3 fixtures are 3 of the hardest the Premier League fixture list can offer. It’s looking positive for the Red half of Merseyside, while the Yellows of East Anglia may soon be preparing for life in the Championship.