It wasn't the sparkling performance we witnessed last weekend, but Liverpool still showed enough of a ruthless streak to dispatch of Malky Mackay's Cardiff side fairly comfortably. Wonderful in the first half and far more passive in the second, the hosts deserved all three points and once again benefited from a wonderful Luis Suarez display as the Uruguayan took his astonishing total up to 19 for the season. For many this was the must-win in the week, and by that standard, Liverpool delivered.
Liverpool 3: Suarez 25' 45', Sterling 42'
Cardiff 1: Mutch 58'
As expected, Brendan Rodgers stuck with the same eleven that tore through Tottenham last Sunday, with three through the midfield and Luis Suarez aided by Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho on the flanks. Unlike last weekend, however, they were faced with an opposition side that closed down quickly and pressured relentlessly--Cardiff are most certainly in chaos, but their approach was organized and effective, and while Liverpool managed to cope, they didn't gain the edge until nearly twenty minutes in.
They weren't being dominated by their guests by any stretch, and they finally found the breakthrough as they began to impose themselves on the match. It was Suarez again, this time smashing a terrific volley past a helpless David Marshall to open the scoring. The goal was preceded by a lovely interchange between Suarez, Coutinho, and Jordan Henderson, who lofted a ball toward the middle of the Cardiff penalty area, where Suarez would finish it off for his 18th goal in 12 matches.
It looked as though Liverpool would pile on from there, with Coutinho clipping the post and Jon Flangan denied his second goal in as many matches by a last-ditch Marshall clearance. They'd finally get their second just before the break, with Henderson springing Suarez into space on the counter, and the Uruguayan laying off for Sterling to put Liverpool 2-0 up. Suarez wasn't done, and in the 45th minute he curled one around Marshall from just outside the area after a clever backheel from Henderson.
3-0 to the good and cruising at the half, and the first few minutes of the second seemed to indicate it would be more of the same. The tempo slowed dramatically, however, and Cardiff found a way back into the match through Jordon Mutch and Liverpool's incompetent set-piece defending in the 58th minute. Mamadou Sakho was left alone with two Cardiff players on the near side, leaving Mutch all alone to cut Liverpool's lead to two goals with a well-taken header.
Given the host's apparent satisfaction with leaving things as they were, things weren't comfortable again until there were less than ten minutes or so to play, as Cardiff constantly searched for a second that would have made for an even nervier finish. Thankfully it didn't come, and Liverpool left with all three points, four wins from four since the loss at Hull, and the league's top goalscorer producing another match-winning performance
It was all a little underwhelming down the stretch, at least until the point that I realized Liverpool went top of the table and won a match we were all nervous about and that I was an idiot and forgot about how bad Liverpool have been the past few seasons. That second half was boring and nervy and harder than it should have been, but it was also probably a necessary evil as the squad wrap up the difficult December slate. They did what was required and not a whole lot more to seal the victory, which is sort of the point of this whole thing.
Few were perfect, and some were downright bad--Glen Johnson was mostly poor, Martin Skrtel made a good case for Daniel Agger to return to the squad, Jon Flanagan had a bumpy first half, Joe Allen was disastrous in the final third, and Philippe Coutinho showed continued signs of frustration at not getting a goal despite providing a number of clever passes throughout. And yet nearly all were involved in positive passages of play as well, combining with their more consistently impressive teammates--Mamadou Sakho, Jordan Henderson, Luis Suarez, and Raheem Sterling chief among them--to help push Liverpool along.
Ultimately, it's another three points, league leaders for now, and two top-of-the-table clashes to come in the next eight days. Neat.