Liverpool 2 Firmino 59', Lallana 70'
Sunderland 2 Johnson 82', Defoe 88'
An odd week for Liverpool Football Club became just a little bit more bizarre with the early news manager Jürgen Klopp would be absent from the weekend fixture against Sunderland A.F.C. due to a bout of appendicitis. Longtime deputy Željko Buvač stepped in for Klopp in match that presented Liverpool with a golden opportunity to rebuild momentum after a humbling midweek setback against Leicester City. Consistency in attack and poise in front of goal have eluded Liverpool for much of the season, and under normal circumstances one might expect an indifferent Sunderland rearguard plus the comforts of a friendly crowd to provide a welcome tonic.
These were not, however, normal circumstances. Much of the pre-match buildup focused on a planned walkout in the 77th minute, which was organized by supporters' groups in response to the club's reconfiguration of its ticket pricing scheme for 2016-17. Despite a familiar set of faces starting the match for Liverpool, Klopp's absence and the looming shadow of supporter discontent (even if directed primarily at the owners rather than the players) combined for a decidedly nervy atmosphere.
The recurring themes for this contest were apparent from the earliest exchanges. Liverpool were comfortable without really setting hearts racing going forward, while Sunderland gladly conceded the middle third of the pitch, choosing instead to
confuse Liverpool by dressing up as Werder Bremen frustrate the hosts and look for any scraps that Liverpool might offer. Joe Allen continued his recent run of good form and his increasingly uncanny Andrea Pirlo impression with some early probing passes. When possession was ceded to Sunderland, Allen combined well with Lallana and Firmino to close down opportunities for the visitors.
Sunderland's plan to break from deep nearly paid dividends as early as the 7th minute, but good work from Dejan Lovren version 2.0 quickly snuffed out the threat. And because Liverpool's 2015-16 season is being scripted by the hackiest daytime soap opera writer in the world, Lovren would be forced off the pitch a mere five minutes later with a suspected hamstring injury. Kolo Toure came on in Lovren's stead, but found himself with precious little to do.
With Sunderland allowing Liverpool to hog more than eighty percent of the first half possession, the onus would be very much on a quality final ball and on intelligent movement in the Sunderland box. Unfortunately for Liverpool, these were lacking, and Mannone remained relatively undisturbed in the Sunderland goal for much of the first half. Just before the twenty minute mark, good work from Alberto Moreno led to a tantalizing cross from the left, but with no red shirts in a position to capitalize.
Jordan Henderson, whose presence indubitably brings an extra serving of drive and energy to this Liverpool side, attempted to build from deeper. On more than one occasion, Henderson looked up for runners, but did not find attractive options, and when the pass came, the margin of error had narrowed. There were a few other errant passes, though those appeared to result less from carelessness than from Henderson's brain still seemingly tuned more to the swashbuckling 2013-14 squad settings.
The current squad, in all fairness, is not currently in a condition or position to buckle many swashes. Despite Lallana pouncing on slack Sunderland possession to release Moreno, resulting in the first save from Mannone midway through the half, there were few clear goalscoring opportunities for Liverpool. The majority of the home side's attacking movement was crab-like: ponderous and mostly lateral.
Nearing the end of the half, Liverpool began to offer a hint of things to come after the break. Roberto Firmino was briefly afforded a bit more space just outside the box than Sunderland would have liked, and the Liverpool forward flashed a shot barely above Mannone's goal. Shortly thereafter, Lallana broke free on the right and found Moreno in the box with room for a touch, but the fullback opted for an awkward low header that failed to trouble the Sunderland keeper.
Just before the stroke of half-time, the universe suddenly remembered that Liverpool had gone a whopping thirty minutes without significant injury, so naturally Joe Allen had to limp off, to be replaced by Jordon Ibe. If Liverpool are still looking for corporate partnerships in the summer, a better choice than DraftKings might be the fictional Omni Consumer Corporation from Robocop.
Still, the tidings were there, and they were encouraging. Firmino has been one of the rare bright spots in Liverpool's recent play, and the forward started the second half seemingly determined to impose his will on the match. Latching on to a Sakho pass in the 55th minute, he danced around several Sunderland defenders before lashing another shot just wide.
In the 59th minute, Lallana and Milner combined on the left before the latter unleashed an inch-perfect cross to where Firmino had found a soft spot between two Sunderland defenders. Without fuss, Firmino eased the ball past Mannone, and the crowd erupted in a mixture of elation and relief. Buvač's nose twitched slightly, which for him might the equivalent of a roundhouse kick and air punch. Elsewhere in Liverpool, a nurse's station was no doubt wondering about the screaming coming from Bed 22A.
The hosts, growing in confidence after the goal, looked to build on the advantage, with Ibe looking more dangerous than he has been in recent memory, taking turns with Lallana to test Mannone. Elsewhere, Henderson started to find his passing and shooting range from distance. Meanwhile, Sunderland failed to capitalize on a few promising opportunities, with Khazri and Van Aanholt surging past Clyne, only for Van Aanholt to place his shot on the wrong side of the side netting.
Firmino was still miles ahead of anyone else on the pitch, however, and it was his persistence in closing down Sunderland defenders that led to him sneaking in from the left, finding Lallana for an easy tap-in. Another nose twitch from Buvač and more screaming from Bed 22A. With the 77th minute walkout just around the corner, the crowd found new clarity and strength in its voice - it was less clear whether this was a result of Liverpool's improved play or in anticipation of the walkout.
And so it was that the exodus began, marking the start of an unexpected third phase of the match. Not quite the mass walkout that the organizers had promised, but certainly discernible. While others will no doubt debate correlation and causation, a change was quickly visible on the pitch as well. Liverpool became more tentative, and Moreno was cautioned for a foul on Khazri, conceding a free kick near the right edge of the box. Adam Johnson, who had come on for Kirchoff, curled his shot around Lallana in the wall. The ball snuck past Simon Mignolet, who arguably should have done better. Serious concern now at the nurse's station.
With Liverpool decidedly on the back foot, Lucas Leiva was brought on for Henderson. The script, however, had already been written. With Sunderland resurgent in the 89th minute, the Liverpool defense collapsed around Khazri, leaving Jermain Defoe to tangle with Sakho. Defoe, almost the perennial forgotten man, made sure Sunderland supporters had a moment to remember, turning Sakho with ease and placing the ball past Mignolet.
The departing supporters had seemed like air slowly leaking out of a balloon, and Defoe's goal was the pin that finally burst the bubble. A few last ditch efforts from a thoroughly deflated side came to naught, and the loudest noise in the stadium came from Sunderland supporters' whistling and a few scattered boos. Although the points were shared with Sunderland at the final whistle, and despite the fact that Liverpool were able to put an end to their recent goal drought, this will still feel like a loss against reduced opposition, and Liverpool must regroup quickly without Klopp before traveling to West Ham for the F.A. Cup.