Benteke piles woe on Sunderland as Reds end year on high
Sunderland 0 Liverpool 1
Liverpool, who changed their manager in October and have won two of their last five games, moved to within six points of third place in the Premier League last night. Nothing summarises the present campaign much better than that.
A second successive one-nil victory, given to them at Sunderland through Christian Benteke's goal, 22 seconds into the second half, moved them level with Manchester United in the table. They are a point off fifth.
They did not look like a Champions League side in the making, but they could end up there. West Ham are up next. They will surely provide stiffer opposition than Sunderland but it is another winnable game. There are lots of them in the division right now.
Jürgen Klopp could at least point to three excellent saves from Vito Mannone for the margin of victory not being greater. He excelled twice to deny Firmino in the first half and then, at the death, after Liverpool substitute Jordon Ibe had blasted over the Sunderland crossbar after being teed up by Firmino, came another opportunity to stretch the lead.
Benteke was sent clear from the halfway line to bear down on Mannone from another pass from the Liverpool No 11. Like his team-mate, he was denied by the Sunderland goalkeeper, who blocked the effort with his left leg.
Both of those missed late opportunities had Klopp hopping out of his technical area in frustration. That said much. It was not dominant, but it could have been far more commanding and impressive.
Beating Sunderland, who have now lost five matches on the trot, is no great shakes.
Klopp still celebrated with his players at the finish, in front of the travelling Liverpool supporters, and as the league table showed, with good reason. Creating momentum, as Leicester have shown, is a fairly dynamic ingredient this season.
A goal in the first half would most likely have made the victory more emphatic. The closest Liverpool came was in the 25th minute. Sunderland again marshalled their back lines well but Firmino was patient, waited for a slight chink in the red and white walls and left fly from 25 yards with a finely struck right-foot shot that fizzed past Yann M'Vila.
Initial viewing suggested the ball had simply crashed off the near post of the Sunderland goal. Only after watching replays did it become apparent that Mannone, who played only 10 league games last season, had produced a superb flying save with his outstretched right hand.
The former Arsenal goalkeeper had to excel again in the 36th minute. This time Liverpool had moved the ball wide to the right, from where Nathaniel Clyne found the unmarked Firmino 10 yards from goal. He headed to Mannone's right, as he had done with his shot. Again the Italian, instinctively on this occasion, reacted to parry the ball away. It was another fine save.
There would be further opportunities for the visitors. Jordan Henderson, the former Sunderland midfielder, saw a goal-bound shot from a clever corner blocked by a crowd of bodies.
There had also been a flurry of opportunities in the fifth minute for Liverpool. An Adam Lallana cross was headed clear, a Benteke volley was blocked by Lee Cattermole and Mannone had been given an early taster of his evening when he had to produce a smart save to deny a swerving Clyne shot from fully 30 yards.
Not that Sunderland were without opportunities of their own. Allardyce had admitted before the match that the first target was not to concede before half-time. There is a new level of ambition among the North-east's Premier League teams.
They did that thanks to Mannone, but there was a fine save from Simon Mignolet, another player Sunderland sold, after 15 minutes, when Jermain Defoe was allowed to slide across the edge of the Liverpool penalty area before unleashing a left-foot shot that Mignolet tipped over the bar.
Fabio Borini spun well, following good work from Patrick van Aanholt, and hit a low drive narrowly wide of the Liverpool near post.
He looked like a player with something to prove, given how long he waited for an opportunity at Anfield before agreeing to move permanently to the Stadium of Light.
Those saves from Mannone, and the effort that Allardyce had demanded to get to half-time without conceding, were forgotten within just 22 seconds of the second half.
Sunderland really did not emerge from the tunnel. Clyne played an angled through-ball which Lallana clipped into the path of Benteke. From 10 yards the centre-forward shot low into the bottom corner of the Sunderland goal.
How Sunderland, who were without their two first-choice defenders in John O'Shea and Younes Kabul, could have done with a more commanding presence at the heart of their side when the goal was scored.
They have agreed a deal with Lorient to sign the 26-year-old Ivory Coast centre-half Lamine Kone, with the player expected to agree terms. He will be busy, given the season's evidence. Sunderland had won three of their previous 34 Premier League games when the opposition have finished with 11 men. That did put Liverpool's performance in context.
Coutinho drew another sharp save from Mannone in the 71st minute, cutting in on his right foot and shooting from 20 yards (© Independent News Service)