In-form Liverpool enhanced their English Premier League title credentials and closed to within a point of leaders Chelsea after overcoming a stubborn Sunderland side 2-1 at Anfield on Wednesday.
Steven Gerrard’s superb 39th-minute free-kick broke the deadlock and Daniel Sturridge doubled the hosts’ lead early in the second half, only for Ki Sung-yueng’s late header to leave Liverpool hanging on.
When the final whistle did come, to roars of relief from the home fans, it gave Brendan Rodgers’ side a seventh consecutive victory and took them above Manchester City, who have two games in hand.
“It was always going to be a difficult game,” Rodgers said. “Sunderland played 3-5-2 and in particular in the first half there was a low block, so we had to show our patience, but it was another excellent game. We are clearly a team that is improving. We are second, which is great, but it’s up to other teams to lose. So we will keep working hard.”
Sunderland remain third from bottom, three points from safety, but with a game in hand on the two sides immediately above them.
While Liverpool were unchanged from their 6-3 win at Cardiff City, Sunderland coach Gus Poyet gambled by fielding a five-man defense in an attempt to blunt the hosts’ razor-sharp attack.
Liverpool’s team bus had been greeted outside the stadium by fans wielding flags and flares trailing red smoke, but Sunderland’s tactics initially enabled them to quieten the home crowd.
A succession of Liverpool attacks broke down on the edge of the penalty area, obliging the hosts to chance their arm from distance, but Philippe Coutinho, Luis Suarez and Joe Allen all failed to find the target.
They needed a helping hand and shortly before halftime they got one when Sunderland defender Santiago Vergini conceded a free-kick for an untidy foul on Suarez just outside the visitors’ penalty area.
As the last man, the Argentine could have been shown a red card, but although he escaped with only a yellow, Gerrard punished his offense by arcing a glorious free-kick into the top-right corner.
In response, Connor Wickham saw a deflected shot saved by former Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, but Sturridge’s strike three minutes into the second half gave Liverpool breathing space.
Henderson spread the ball wide to Sturridge on the right and the England man cut in, before bending a left-shot past goalkeeper Vito Mannone via a deflection off Wes Brown.
It was Sturridge’s 20th goal of the season, making him and Suarez only the third duo to both score 20 goals or more in the English top flight since 1991-1992.
The visitors looked there for the taking, but after Mannone had thwarted Suarez, Coutinho, Sturridge and Suarez had fizzed a shot wide, Lee Cattermole gave the hosts a scare by clattering a shot against the bar.
Remarkably, Sturridge did the same thing just a minute later at the other end, before Ki pulled a goal back with 14 minutes to play.
The South Korean stooped to head home from close range after a corner by fellow substitute Adam Johnson had been allowed to drift across the area, but Liverpool withstood a nervy finale to claim all three points.
In Wednesday’s other game, West Ham United edged 10-man Hull City 2-1 at Upton Park to end a run of three straight defeats and ease their relegation fears.
Mark Noble put West Ham ahead from the spot in the 26th minute after visiting goalkeeper Allan McGregor had been sent off for a foul on Mohamed Diame.
Nikica Jelavic deflected in a Tom Huddlestone free-kick early in the second half to level the scores, but a 54th-minute own-goal by James Chester gave the Hammers victory.
“We were absolutely magnificent,” West Ham manager Sam Allardyce said. “It’s been a tight few games, and swings and roundabouts have happened. I suppose we had a bit of fortune as the referee could have given a handball on Mohamed Diame for the penalty we got, but if he hasn’t seen that it’s definitely a sending-off for Allan McGregor.”