Raheem Sterling was the hero of the hour as Liverpool moved five points clear at the top of the Premier League with a 3-2 win over Norwich that twice threatened to go in an entirely less comfortable direction.
In a week of surprising results involving teams at either end of the table, it did not initially look like Brendan Rodgers’ side would make a similar slip-up as they breezed into a 2-0 lead at Carrow Road, thanks to Sterling’s long-range strike and Luis Suarez’s smart finish.
But Gary Hooper’s simple tap-in shortly after half-time threatened to change the dynamic of the contest completely, before Sterling grabbed his second goal of the game with a driving run and deflected drive to ease nerves on Merseyside just as the visitors were starting to look a bit tetchy.
Robert Snodgrass then squeezed a header home with just over 10 minutes remaining to ratchet up the tension once more, but Liverpool duly rode out the storm to secure their 11th successive league victory.
#LFC have now guaranteed Champions League football for the 2014-15 season.— Liverpool FC (@LFC) April 20, 2014
It was a virtuoso display from Sterling, who stepped into a second-striker role behind Suarez as injury forced Daniel Sturridge to miss the game. Not only did he break the deadlock after four minutes, but he provided the perfect cross for Suarez’s strike seven minutes later, inspiring his side’s attacking endeavours throughout.
Norwich, in contrast, enjoyed plenty of possession in the first half, but their lack of a cutting edge was acutely evident before they twice found the net to create fleeting hope of a rare comeback.
Nevertheless, the Canaries remain precariously placed just two points above the relegation zone, with their final three games all coming against top seven opponents.
Liverpool, in contrast, know they can now win the title as soon as next weekend—if they beat Chelsea (who lost to Sunderland on Saturday) and Manchester City fail to beat both West Brom and Crystal Palace in the coming week.
Afterwards, Rodgers told reporters (via the Daily Star):
The objective at the start of the season was to qualify for the Champions League—that was always going to be an incredible task but now we know we cannot finish lower than third.
We will go into the next three games looking to perform well. We want to continue to fight and now look to Chelsea next week—where it will be an incredible atmosphere at Anfield.
It did not take long for the title favourites to impose themselves on the game, and Sterling to start what would prove to be a fine individual display. He opened the scoring in just the fourth minute in fine style, cutting inside after taking the pass from Philippe Coutinho before firing an unstoppable drive—that may just have taken a slight deflection—inside John Ruddy’s near post from 25 yards.
Soon after he turned provider, reading Suarez’s run perfectly as the Uruguayan dummied to run to the near post before darting behind Michael Turner to the far post, arriving just in time to redirect Sterling’s low cross into the far corner.
30 - Luis Suarez is only the 2nd player to reach 30 PL goals without a single penalty in the total (+ Andy Cole with 34 in 1993-94). Pure.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 20, 2014
It was Suarez’s 30th league goal of the season, as he became only the seventh player to achieve such a feat.
That would prove to be the high point of the game for the Reds, however, as Norwich slowly grew into the contest. Without Sturridge and the suspended Jordan Henderson, the visitors perhaps looked a little disjointed, although the home side failed to take advantage of that in the first half. Joe Allen arguably had the best chance of anyone to score a third goal, as he saw his drive deflected away by Ruddy.
Liverpool started the second half with a renewed intent, yet soon enough Norwich finally got the breakthrough they desperately needed.
In some ways it was gifted to them: Bradley Johnson pressuring Simon Mignolet into a misdirected punch that fell perfectly for the previously dire Hooper, who had the simplest of tasks to knock the ball into the net.
That lifted the atmosphere around Carrow Road, albeit only briefly. This time Johnson was the villain, as he gifted possession to Sterling in the Liverpool half, the attacker dribbling over half the length of the pitch before unleashing a shot that deflected wickedly off the recovering Johnson and looped over Ruddy into the net.
That looked like finally putting matters to bed, but Norwich were not giving up quite that easily. It was down the left, where Norwich's main threat had been, that they finally produced a worthy delivery—Snodgrass rising with determination to power Martin Olsson's cross beyond Mignolet’s reach into the top corner.
Norwich caretaker boss Neil Adams threw on attacking substitutions in pursuit of an equaliser, as one of them, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, headed a great chance straight at Mignolet.
Liverpool has won 11 straight league games in a season for the first time since 1982.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) April 20, 2014
Van Wolfswinkel has only scored once in the league all season—on the first day at that—and his lack of conviction showed.
Norwich continued to press, but unlike some of their title rivals this week, Liverpool showed a resoluteness under fire as they clinically saw the game out.
"We are happy because the three points were important, we worked very hard and they were fighting to not go down," Suarez said, per BBC.
"[Reaching 30 goals is] important for myself but the team is top and that is the priority. In football you never know what happens, we'll keep calm and focus on the next game which is Chelsea."
One more challenge faced, another win secured. A remarkable title triumph draws ever closer.
|Ricky van Wolfswinkel||6|
Liverpool now have a week to prepare for what might prove the decisive match in their season, as they host Chelsea at Anfield.
Norwich, meanwhile, travel to Manchester United next Saturday as their prodigiously difficult run-in continues.