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    Sunderland 0-1 Liverpool Match Report

    Christian Benteke scored for the second time over the festive period to help Liverpool condemn an out-of-form Sunderland to their fifth successive defeat in the league. The Belgian's strike, early in the second half, proved the difference between the two sides but the margin of victory could have been more emphatic had Jordon Ibe and Benteke not wasted glorious chances in the closing minutes.

    It was a deserved victory for the visitors, who ceased control of the match early on and dominated possession as well as creating the better of the chances. They kept a solid rearguard throughout the evening and despite not scaling the heights of past away performances against Manchester City and Southampton, were good value for their victory. Had Jurgen Klopp's side been more clinical in front of goal, the match could have been over long before the helter-skelter finale that ensued in the last few minutes.

    Fabio Borini and Jermain Defoe offered fleeting glimpses of their capabilities for a Sunderland team that has struggled for goals this season and only rarely looked like breaking Liverpool's stranglehold on the game. To their credit, their performance did not lack the spirit that their manager demands from his players, who fought until the very end in order to find away back into the match. As hard as they tried, the Black Cats could not stop the visitors from recording their second successive 1-0 victory and remain deep in trouble going into the second half of the season.

    Liverpool went into the game without the services of Divock Origi, who limped off during Boxing Day's win over Leicester with a hamstring injury. Christian Benteke, who scored the winner against the Foxes as a substitute, was recalled and Jordon Ibe was only fit enough for a place on the bench having recovered from illness. Sunderland handed only a second appearance of the season to Wes Brown, replacing John O'Shea who was missing with a calf problem. The Black Cats also welcomed back Jack Rodwell from suspension, as well as Lee Cattermole and Jermain Defoe, with Danny Graham demoted to the bench and Steven Fletcher and Jordi Gomez absent from the matchday squad.

    The visitors began the match the brighter team and created three chances to take the lead inside the opening 15 minutes. Nathaniel Clyne tried a speculative strike from over 20 yards out, which was comfortably saved by Vito Mannone, while Roberto Firmino's control let him down when a better second touch would have sent him through on goal. Philippe Coutinho also tried his luck from 25 yards but his left-footed effort was three yards wide of Mannone's right-hand post.

    Sunderland did have their moments in the first half and after holding firm for the opening 15 minutes, Jermain Defoe had a chance to give the Black Cats the lead. The former England striker collected the ball with his back to goal, turned past Mamadou Sakho and Jordan Henderson before unleashing a left-footed shot from 20 yards that was comfortably pushed over by Simon Mignolet. Although the save was routine, it was important for Sunderland to weather the early Liverpool storm and let the visitors know that they wouldn't be having everything their own way.

    The respite was brief and after Coutinho came close with a free-kick that narrowly evaded Mignolet's crossbar, it was Roberto Firmino who produced the moment of highest quality in the first-half. The Brazilian collected the ball just outside the penalty area, switching the ball from his left foot to his right, and unleashed an audacious effort from over 20 yards that needed to be tipped on to the post by Mannone at full stretch. It initially appeared that the Italian was beaten by the ferocity of the strike but TV replays showed the shot heading on target before being tipped on to the post by the sprawling goalkeeper's fingertips.

    Perhaps inspired by their goalkeeper's heroics, Sunderland did rally again just after the half-hour mark and a motionless Mignolet looked on as Borini's effort from 15 yards headed three yards wide of goal. Once again, the response was brief and Liverpool ended the half as the stronger team, with Mannone pushing away Firmino's header from eight yards having been picked out by Nathaniel Clyne's pinpoint cross.

    The Black Cats may have survived Liverpool's first half onslaught but it only took the away side 22 seconds after the resumption to finally get the goal that their performance had merited. It did not come within a stroke of luck, however, with Adam Lallana's fortunate touch from Clyne's pass proving crucial in giving Benteke the chance to slot the ball right-footed past Mignolet from eight yards. It was the Belgian's sixth goal in seven appearances against Sunderland and seventh goal of the season, providing further evidence that he is beginning to look the part in a Liverpool shirt after an inconsistent start to the season.

    Sunderland's best chance of the second half came eight minutes later, with Borini turning past Lovren and Henderson before his right-footed effort from 15 yards landed straight into the hands of Mignolet. The second half was, however, dominated by the visitors, with Coutinho and Firmino going close to extending Liverpool's lead. Coutinho had an effort from 15 yards that was blocked before he blazed over the bar from the rebound, while Firmino's strike from the edge of the penalty area was comfortably saved by Mannone. Coutinho was determined all evening to get his name on the scoresheet and he once again tried a speculative effort from 25 yards that sailed high over the crossbar.

    The match should have been out of Sunderland's sight long before it entered its closing stages but the guilt-edged chances that were missed by Jordon Ibe, and then by Christian Benteke in the first minute of stoppage time, made the final frenetic moments of the match compelling viewing. Ibe was played in on goal by Firmino, but his decision to take three touches before blazing over Mannone's bar allowed three Sunderland defenders the chance to retreat. Minutes later, Benteke was played into oceans of space by Firmino, with only Mannone to beat, but the Italian did well to narrow down the space and save the Belgian's effort low to his left.

    Sunderland, by this stage, were committing more and more players forward and were being easily picked off on the counter-attack, although Liverpool's refusal to seal the win did allow the home side one last chance to equalise. Mannone made his way forward for a last-gasp corner but was unable to climb high enough to head home from six yards out. Referee Kevin Friend promptly blew the final whistle to the relief of the away side, who were holding on during the final stages for the second consecutive match but had taken maximum points from their two Christmas fixtures.

    Although a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal did not cost Liverpool at the Stadium of Light, nor against Leicester four days earlier, there is no doubt that Jurgen Klopp will be worried by his side's failure to put matches to bed sooner. Had Sunderland had more confidence and belief, they could have made Liverpool pay for their wastefulness, although it would have been more than they had deserved on the balance of play. The lessons from the past two matches may be enough for Klopp to reassess his plans not to buy a striker in January, especially with Divock Origi and Christian Benteke (both hamstring) and Danny Ings (anterior cruciate ligament) currently out of the side.

    Despite the narrow scoreline, it was another excellent performance by Liverpool and an important three points that keeps them five points from the Champions League places in seventh position. Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho were excellent in defence for the second successive match, helping their side achieve back-to-back clean sheets for the first time in over four months. Although Liverpool were wasteful in front of goal, their performance showed plenty of spirit and bravery, with a willingness to get into positions where they would miss chances rather than sitting back and defending a 1-0 lead. The Reds will need to display the same level of courage in their performance when they travel to West Ham on Saturday lunchtime, who won 3-0 at Anfield earlier in the season. 

    Although Sunderland were beaten by a goal that contained an element of luck, they were comprehensively outplayed for much of the 90 minutes and could have lost by a much wider scoreline than by the solitary goal. Sam Allardyce will be encouraged by the spirit the home team showed throughout the match and even if his side fall short in terms of quality, their competitive instincts were evident for all to see based on this display. A special mention should go to Vito Mannone, who has had his critics when playing for both Arsenal and Sunderland, but made two inspired saves to deny Firmino in the first-half and Benteke in stoppage time.

    If Sunderland recover their confidence and belief, as well as making several additions to the squad in January, they will stand a chance of staying in the division. As it stands, the club are faced with an uphill task of survival with this defeat leaving them seven points outside the relegation zone in 19th position. Their cause will be further tested by injuries picked up by Jack Rodwell (hamstring) and Sebastian Coates (bruising), who both failed to complete the 90 minutes. Sunderland's future in the division will less likely be determined by how well they do against the top clubs but by their matches against their relegation rivals, making Saturday's visit of bottom side Aston Villa a must-win game.
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    Item Reviewed: Sunderland 0-1 Liverpool Match Report Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Richard Tufft
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