All the pre-match talk was focused on domination, on blowing Sunderland out of the water, on making Gus Poyet eat his words about Liverpool being a mid-table side without Luis Suarez. And, after Daniel Sturridge's curling effort in the 48th minute, that looked to be the case. But Sunderland fought back and forced a far more frightening finish than anyone could have predicted, and while our collective blood pressure reached critical levels, Liverpool managed to grind their way to the result they needed and a seventh consecutive win.
Liverpool 2: Gerrard 39', Sturridge 48'
Sunderland 1: Ki 76'
Some rotation was expected after the win over Cardiff on Saturday, especially with Lucas and Mamadou Sakho fit and ready to come into the eleven, but Brendan Rodgers opted to keep things unchanged in terms of both personnel and formation. It meant that once again Raheem Sterling was on the bench to start along with Sakho and Lucas, and that Liverpool will head into their Sunday matchup with Spurs with a likely eleven composed of players on tired legs.
The task today was Sunderland, though, and the visitors set out to make life as difficult as possible for Rodgers' squad. They offered little going forward but made it awfully tough to Liverpool break down, leaving the hosts to settle for efforts from distance--a few of which came marginally close--rather than getting in the types of areas from which they've been so effective of late.
With just over five minutes to play Liverpool finally found the breakthrough, with Steven Gerrard curling a delightful free-kick over the wall and past Vito Mannone. As good as the strike was, the foul that enabled it was as much of a talking point; Santiago Vergini's foul of Luis Suarez looked to be an offense worthy of a sending off on its own, and the Argentine should have surely seen a second yellow minutes later. Kevin Friend disagreed, and Sunderland managed to stay at eleven men and were only down a goal at the half.
It all looked to be settled less than five minutes after the break anyway, as Daniel Sturridge hit a curler from the edge of the area (that was deflected slightly) to put Liverpool 2-0 up and in cruise control. From there things played out mostly as they had to that point, with Sunderland only coming into the match after the introduction of Ki Sung-Yueng and Adam Johnson. The former clawed one back for Gus Poyet's side in the 76th minute after some poor set-piece defending, and Liverpool's inability to add to their lead meant the result was anything but settled.
The final fourteen minutes were borderline unwatchable, with Sunderland pressing for an equalizer and Liverpool creating little going forward, but the nerve held at Anfield and it was another three points to the good for Brendan Rodgers' side.
I would much prefer that we not have to go through that again, thank you very much, but the chances of Liverpool making it through the run-in without any sort of anxiety-inducing moments are slim to none. That they came against Sunderland might have been slightly surprising, but the reality is that with seven matches left to play and Liverpool one point off the top, everything's got the possibility to be the worst. Or, as we discovered today, still the best. Just terrifying.
Part of today's concern was a product of the similarities between this one and matches from last season in which Liverpool were able to control possession and tempo but fell victim to individual errors or lapses at the worst possible moment. Today those things very much existed, especially over the course of the final half-hour, but the difference today was that Liverpool faced an opposition unable to punish them for their mistakes. An escape, maybe, but an absolutely wonderful one that included a sparkling return to form from Philippe Coutinho and generally encouraging performances from Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, and most of the defensive unit outside of Jon Flanagan's lapse for the Ki header.
Liverpool will need to be better on Sunday, no doubt, but this felt like the type of victory that the club had to earn to justify their spot in the title race. Not at their best, with chances missed and failing to convert their possession to kill the match off, they still did it anyway. Liverpool were made to work, at times due an uneven performance from Kevin Friend, and that work proved to be enough.
As was the case after Saturday's romp at Cardiff, three more full days to rest. Three more full days for belief to grow. And any pessimism about today's struggle leading to a lapse against Spurs should hopefully be assuaged by Liverpool's ability to improve between matches, as well as their record in "big" fixtures this season at Anfield.
Although at this point, as today proved, they're all big matches.