Sunday 25 February 2018

Suarez adds bite to Reds' attack

Uruguayan strikes clinical brace as Sturridge partnership catches fire

Liverpool's Luis Suarez has a shot on goal during the Barclays Premier League match at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland
Liverpool's Luis Suarez has a shot on goal during the Barclays Premier League match at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland

Henry Winter

Returning to Premier League action for the first time since biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic on April 21, Luis Suarez made light of a dead leg and some boos from the Sunderland fans to mark the occasion with two goals and two T-shirts.

Sunderland 1 Liverpool 3

Never short of confidence, Suarez clearly expected to score, and score more than once. After pouncing for his first, Suarez lifted his top, that ugly Liverpool third-choice number, to reveal a T-shirt with a picture of his wife Sofia, daughter Delfina and new-born son Benjamin. "Welcome Benja" read the message. "Los amo!!!" ("I love them'').

Suarez had a wardrobe change at half-time, donning a T-shirt with just same message in bigger point size. This second goal, Liverpool's third, was particularly significant as it took Brendan Rodgers' side above Tottenham Hotspur into second place in this open-looking Premier League.

At the final whistle, the DJ played the usual favourite of 'I Can't Help Falling in Love With You', a feeling that reflected the strengthened bond between Sunderland fans and their players who worked so hard for no reward.

The sentiments of the song were also shared by the Liverpool contingent of the 41,415 crowd as they sang in praise of Suarez.

The rekindling of the love affair between Suarez and Liverpool needs placing in context. The striker has chain-sawed his way through the moral maze this year.

He embarrassed his employers with his biting antics in the spring and then sought to manoeuvre his way out of the club in the summer, claiming he had been let down by Rodgers. Even by football's standards it was fairly outrageous behaviour.

What also needs noting is that during his spell out Suarez worked incredibly hard on his conditioning and finishing at Melwood. He completed 90 minutes in the Capital One Cup against Manchester United and delivered another full shift here. Rodgers has spent time developing the axis between Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.

Signs of their understanding were clear last season and their reading of each other's movement was even more pronounced here. Sturridge has also refined his own game, becoming a more rounded, less selfish player.

Sturridge's hand was shaken warmly by Kevin Ball at the final whistle. Sunderland were very much in their interim head coach's whole-hearted image, giving everything for the shirt.

Ball took the players for a stroll along the Seaburn seafront in the morning, wanting them to mix with the people who would then flock to the ground to support them.

Ball wanted to remind them of their responsibilities to the club and the city and the players responded fully. Irish international Keiren Westwood was outstanding in goal.

Lee Cattermole worked overtime in central midfield. Craig Gardner spoke for the dressing-room when he tweeted: "absolutely gutted we never got nothing out of that game. The fans were class again keepthefaith we're all together xx'.

SOUL

Di Canio's departure, and the temporary installation of the ultra-positive Ball, has lifted the mood in the dressing-room, in the stands and behind the scenes. Sunderland's soul is embodied in the likes of the club servant who has worked in the tunnel on match-day for 53 years, dealing with officials, or the tea-lady who refuels the dressing-rooms.

Ball and his team were playing for the likes of them.

Problems still persist. Sunderland's marking was poor at times, Ball's defenders caught out by the quicksilver movement of Suarez and Sturridge. They also need a finisher. Only once did Sunderland get through Liverpool's defence.

Rodgers continued with three centre-halves, Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho. There was occasional uncertainty out wide as Sunderland targeted the space behind the wing-backs Jose Enrique and Jordan Henderson. Overall, though, the system worked well and will be strengthened further when Coutinho and Glen Johnson regain full fitness.

Suarez can prosper in most systems. He seemed almost deliberately on his best behaviour, staying on his feet when bumped into by John O'Shea in the area. Suarez then sustained his dead leg, slipping and being caught by Gardner. The Uruguayan hobbled around for a bit, rubbing his thigh, before regaining full movement.

Sunderland looked bright for a period. Ki Sung-yueng shot wide. Gardner spirited the ball past Steven Gerrard. Seb Larsson curled a free-kick on to Simon Mignolet's bar. Liverpool stayed calm and began counter-attacking at pace, forcing a corner after 28 minutes.

The unmarked Sturridge tried to meet Gerrard's corner with his head but the ball went in off his bicep. It was accidental but it would have triggered a spiky front-page reaction had it been Suarez.

Darren Cann, one of Howard Webb's assistants from the 2010 World Cup final, had the sun in his eyes and did not indicate any offence.

"First goal maybe handball but even still it would only even out the beach ball incident,'' tweeted Johnson, referring to Darren Bent's bizarrely deflected goal here in 2009. Liverpool added a second eight minutes later.

Gerrard created the goal with one of his trademark raking passes, the ball angled right to Sturridge. Carlos Cuellar should have shepherded Sturridge inside where Cattermole was arriving but instead allowed him to run towards the byeline.

Five touches with his left boot created the space and then Sturridge stabbed the ball across to where Suarez was pointing. He couldn't miss. Nor could the photographers miss T-shirt No 1.

Rallied by Ball, Sunderland were a far more cohesive force after the break, scoring within seven minutes. Ki shot from 25 yards, the ball suddenly appearing past Skrtel and forcing Mignolet into a hurried save. Emanuele Giaccherini reacted quickest, slamming the loose ball in.

Belief spread across the home terraces. Gardner had a shot saved. Jack Colback and Cattermole snapped into tackles. This was the sort of committed performance demanded by Ball and the Sunderland fans.

Yet Liverpool still carried a threat on the counter. Westwood tipped over a Moses drive. With a minute remaining, Liverpool added that important third.

Mignolet had not been at his most convincing on his return to Wearside, yet he threw the ball out perfectly for Suarez, inviting him to accelerate upfield before finding Sturridge, who cut the ball back in. It arrived slightly behind Suarez, but he still managed to finish well, side-footing home.

Cue T-shirt No 2. Lucas' suspension-bringing fifth booking of the season was the only negative of a day full of positives for Suarez, Rodgers and Liverpool. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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