Menu

SOCCER

Stoppage Time: Liverpool shows its mettle with United triumph

It has been more than 20 years since Liverpool Football Club won an English league title.

But with a flick of Daniel Sturridge's head on Sunday morning, the Reds thrust themselves, admittedly early, to the top of the Premier League table.

Liverpool opened its season with buzzing optimism as young stars such as Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto were counted on to blossom around captain Steven Gerrard and veterans Lucas Leiva and Daniel Agger.

They began the campaign with a narrow 1-0 victory over Stoke City behind a Sturridge goal and a stunning penalty save from new goalkeeper Simon Mignolet then followed that up with another 1-0 victory over improving Aston Villa.

But the big test was circled on the calendar for Sunday as defending champions Manchester United paid a visit to Anfield. A win could cement the Reds as early contenders for a coveted top-four place, while a loss for Brendan Rodgers' club would fuel speculation as to how much progress Rodgers had actually made over his year-plus in charge.

Before they could take the pitch for a clash with their most heated rivals, Liverpool needed 120 minutes in midweek to dispatch League One club Notts County in the League Cup, which proved to be a costly encounter as new defenders Kolo Toure and Aly Cissokho were forced off due to injury.

Losing Toure was perceived as a massive blow as he had done well in the club's first two matches to clear the ball and control the defensive half. The injury forced Rodgers to insert Martin Skrtel into central defense next to Agger.

Luckily, the move worked to perfection as Skrtel, who wasn't quite 100 percent match fit, held his own in the back.

Buoyed by a pre-match ceremony for the late Bill Shankley, who is considered the godfather of Liverpool Football Club (think Vince Lombardi of soccer), the Reds came out inspired in the first half.

They played Rodgers' possession-based system to a tee, keeping the ball and looking for penetrating passes, while forcing United to chase the game.

It took just four minutes for Liverpool to take the lead off a corner kick as Gerrard's strike was flicked to the far post by Agger and Sturridge ran around behind Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea to lose his defender before popping up to flick it home for his third goal in as many league matches, sending the Kop end of Anfield into euphoria.

After the goal, Liverpool continued to keep possession, frustrating many Manchester United players, including striker Robin Van Persie, who got into a tussle with Gerrard toward the end of the first half.

Halftime couldn't come quick enough for David Moyes' side as they regrouped and came out much stronger in the second period. The Red Devils kept much more of the ball in the second 45 and forced Mignolet to make several stops, but the Reds held firm to earn the narrow victory over their rivals from Manchester.

"Today was another indicator that the winning mentality we're growing and evolving all the time in the group is becoming stronger," Brendan Rodgers said after the victory. "You could see from the reaction that the togetherness is very good and that is going to be important for us this year.

"We drew too many of the big games last year and we lost home and away to Manchester United, so today was another step to show we're going in the right direction - but there's still a long way to go."

Liverpool have nine points from their first three league matches, something they have not done since the 1994-95 campaign, in which they finished fourth in the league.

Three fixtures does not define a long 38-game campaign, but looking a bit further down the schedule, it's conceivable that the Reds could build a decent margin for themselves atop the table.

The next five matches will see Liverpool face Swansea at the Liberty Stadium, Southampton at home, Sunderland away, Crystal Palace at home and Newcastle United away.

Liberty Stadium is always a difficult place to play, so three points are not a given there, but winning three of the next five would create some nice separation atop the table.

Additionally, the Reds' fine form has been without star forward Luis Suarez, who is serving a 10-match ban for biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic last season. Once the Uruguayan is eligible to return, a pairing with Sturridge at the top of the formation could be a deadly combination.

The Reds also have a unique opportunity to capitalize on their superb start as many of the teams that finished above them last season (United, Manchester City, Chelsea) are under new managers this term, while Rodgers is in his second season at Anfield.

And Monday's transfer deadline saw Rodgers strike early and often as the Reds nabbed defenders Mamadou Sakho from Paris Saint-Germain, Tiago Ilori from Sporting Lisbon and winger Victor Moses on a loan deal from Chelsea.

The moves appear to have strengthened the squad immensely as Sakho can slide right into defense either for Toure or Glen Johnson, while the highly-touted Ilori is one for the future. Moses will fit in well on one of the wings with the improved Jordan Henderson on the other side.

Goal scoring seems to be a bit of an issue, but once the new signings jell into the team and Suarez makes his return the Reds shouldn't have too many problems finding the back of the net.

This season would have to be something extraordinarily special for the club to snatch the title away from Manchester United, but a top-four spot, and subsequent Champions League berth, is within reach.

And one thing is certain, the Reds certainly showed their mettle with Sunday's win over the reigning champs.