Liverpool 1 Benteke 46'
Liverpool came out in the same 4-2-3-1 that overcame Leicester on Boxing Day, the sole alteration being Christian Benteke starting up top in place of the injured Divock Origi. It looked promising early, with the hosts mostly besieged in their own box for the majority of the opening 20 minutes. This period was bookended by two Vito Mannone saves; first holding a Nathaniel Clyne thunderbastard hit straight at him from long range, then tipping a 25-yard effort from Roberto Firmino onto the post with a fantastic leap.
In the intervening period, there were a couple Philippe Coutinho efforts from outside the box, a cross nearly making its way to a free Benteke, and some vintage gegenpressing leading to an excellent through ball from Coutinho bouncing off Firmino's legs inside the area.
Despite dominating possession and territory, the visitors struggled to create clear cut chances, and Sunderland fought their way into the match. Fabio Borini nearly got his pre-match wish as he swiveled away from Dejan Lovren and curled the ball half a yard wide of Simon Mignolet's post, and Adam Johnson hammered a free kick miles over from a very promising position after a soft foul was called on Mamadou Sakho. On the other end a cross from Clyne was headed straight at Mannone by Firmino, before a clever corner routine gave Jordan Henderson an uncontested shot at goal from 12 yards.
22 seconds into the second half, The Reds would take the lead, when a Clyne through ball was touched on by Adam Lallana, leaving Benteke with a simple finish from 10 yards. It was the Belgian's second goal in two straight matches and set Liverpool up perfectly for the rest of the half.
Despite expectations that Liverpool would now launch counter attack after counter attack, the majority of the second half passed without incident, with Sunderland unable to create anything of substance, and the visitors equally unable to counter effectively. Borini had another shot, this time saved by Mignolet, and Lucas was subbed on for Henderson on the hour. The captain received an ovation from home and away fans alike, but was clearly struggling with pain in his inflamed foot.
Five minutes from time, Jeremain Lens was lucky to stay on the pitch after a horrible tackle left Sakho writhing on the ground, and the French centre-back was lucky to remain on the pitch with both legs intact. Sunderland finally started throwing men forward and the visitors put together a couple counters to close the game out. First substitute Jordon Ibe blasted over following a pass from Firmino, before Benteke repeated his tame one on one effort from the Leicester game after latching onto a through ball from the Brazilian.
It was hardly a barn-burner, but after going a goal up, Liverpool's lead never really looked under threat. The CB pairing of Lovren and Sakho were again solid, and beyond Borini finding a little too much space on a couple of occasions, Sunderland were kept quiet. Alberto Moreno has improved his defensive play enormously this season, Clyne continues to be an absolute shutdown fullback, and the double pivot of Henderson and Emre Can did much better at matching Sunderland's physical play than has been the case at times.
On the other end of the pitch, the offense continues to struggle, and although Benteke scored his 4th match winner of the season and at times showed signs of clicking with his attacking midfielders, he continues to look out of place. Coutinho was again trigger-happy, to typical frustrating inefficiency, and the lack of interplay between the front four continues to be disconcerting.
All in all, the three points are the most important, with Simon Mignolet's 16th clean sheet - the most in the PL in 2015 - a close second. The defensive solidity is an encouraging platform to build on, and the side matching the effort of hard-working teams is a necessity in this remarkably tight Premier League season. Five points off top four going into the new year isn't the worst position to be in, and a win at the Boleyn Ground on Saturday could further close that gap.