We're past the point in the season where it matters how it looks. Liverpool beat Norwich 3-2 to take command of the Barclay's Premier League.
Norwich City 2: Hooper 54', Snodgrass 77'
Liverpool 3: Sterling 4' 62', Suarez 11'
Brendan Rodgers, facing a selection dilemma for the first time in months, chose the eleven many had predicted before the match. Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen came in for the injured Daniel Sturridge and suspended Jordan Henderson. Otherwise, there were no changes. Although the names on the sheet were familiar and expected, the organization of them on the pitch was anything but. The team set up roughly in the 4-4-2 diamond we've come to expect, but Raheem Sterling played a completely free role, rather than strictly up top, popping up in all areas of the pitch seemingly at will.
That freedom paid immediate dividends. 4 minutes in, Sterling collected the ball off the left flank, drifted in with two quick touches, and fired an insane shot past Jon Ruddy from about 20 yards out that was reminiscent of his effort on goal late in the Manchester City match. Five minutes later, he made a clever run from the halfway line that was well-found by Jon Flanagan, and played a sumptuous ball around the defender that was deftly tapped in by Luis Suarez for his 30th goal of the season and 12th in 5 against Norwich. Suarez became the first player in Europe's big five leagues this season, and Liverpool's first since Ian Rush in the 1986-87 season, to reach the 30 league goal milestone.
Two quick goals and a dominant first 15 minutes had us all breathing easily, expecting another romp against Norwich. But shortly thereafter Norwich started pressing higher up the pitch which unsettled Liverpool. Norwich forced Liverpool's backline into a few errors, most notably by Mamadou Sakho who gave the ball away two or three times in his own half today. Liverpool stubbornly refused to clear the ball out even in dangerous situations, but thankfully Norwich struggled to create any real chances. Martin Skrtel's umpteen first half headers, and Joe Allen's controlled play had a lot to do with that. There was a move in the 44th minute where Rodgers' vision seemed to come to fruition, when Liverpool finally navigated Norwich's pressure successfully, played it up and around the midfield, and after 30-40 passes, created a chance that Coutinho flashed just wide. Ultimately, though, the half ended somewhat quietly.
The second half was significantly less fun from Liverpool's perspective. The reds struggled to retain any semblance of possession and move out of their own half, and Norwich's pressure now extended fully to the half way line. Ball after ball were being pounded into Simon Mignolet's box, and you just had the feeling something bad was coming. Liverpool struggled to close crosses down and, when Mignolet ran into Skrtel and fluffed a lofted ball in, it fell to Gary Hooper who finished coolly.
Things only got slightly better from there. Norwich's pressure persisted, but Liverpool managed to counter it sporadically, again in large part thanks to Sterling. First, he fed Suarez who dummied the entire Norwich defense and fired inches wide of the far post. A few minutes later, Sterling intercepted a lazy cross field pass in Liverpool's half, ran 60 yards with the ball and, just when he looked to have taken it a touch too far, scored with the help of a lucky deflection that just squeaked past Jon Ruddy's outstretched fingers.
In another game, maybe one that isn't accompanied by the pressures of a title race, that lucky turn of events changes the course of the game and enables Liverpool to coast to the end. Not here, though. Norwich, Fowler bless them, continued to press incessantly, and created a few chances and nervous moments for Liverpool. In the 76th minute, Robert Snodgrass managed to nod home a goal from another lofted ball in, this time from the left flank, without so much as even a challenge by his marker, Jon Flanagan. Right then, 13 minutes of nail-biting stuff for Liverpool.
Rodgers tried to nudge Liverpool over the finish line by introducing Victor Moses and Daniel Agger. The former was, for once, effective at relieving some of the pressure by serving as an outlet and holding the ball upfield. The hosts had one great chance to equalize with yet another cross into the box, but Ricky van Wolfswinkel headed directly at Mignolet's feet. There was still some saving to do, and Mignolet did it well. Suarez and Lucas could have killed it off with a fourth goal, but eventually Andre Marriner's whistle went, and it was job done for Rodgers' men.
11 wins on the trot. 5 points clear at the top of the Premier League. 3 games from glory. Whatever else there might be to say about this match, this is all that matters. Rodgers deserves credit for continuing to tinker with his formations, and, though it would have been great to see some kind of response to Norwich's pressure, he was severely hamstrung by a lack of depth on the bench. In late-season games on the road against relegation battlers it would be naive to expect to coast to victory.
A word on Raheem Sterling. This boy is turning into a world-beater before our very eyes. Raheem notched 2 more goals and an assist, easily won man of the match, and, perhaps most impressively, didn't look remotely phased by the occasion. He's becoming Liverpool's most important player as they march on to the title. Rodgers called him the "best young player in Europe" at the moment, and it's hard to disagree.
It's becoming cliche to say that this is the sort of game that we would have lost last year. It's become even more cliche to say this is the sort of game that title winning teams win. We're running out of cliches for this Liverpool team, and, with three games to go, we're also running out of superlatives. Yes, the Chelsea result yesterday didn't actually change much for Liverpool, but with a 5 point lead and only 3 games to go, it's hard to avoid feeling like Liverpool have one hand on the title. Over to you, West Bromwich Albion.