Christian Benteke's goal sees Liverpool end 2015 with back-to-back wins
SUNDERLAND, England -- Three points from Liverpool's 1-0 win vs. Sunderland in the Premier League
1. Scrappy win for Liverpool
Back-to-back 1-0 wins do not quite fit the description of "heavy metal football," but they will do for now for Jurgen Klopp. Liverpool remain a work in progress, but it's far easier to carry out that work without pressure.
There has been little in the past two performances -- 1-0 wins against Leicester and now Sunderland -- to suggest that Liverpool are back to their best, but they clock out of 2015 just five points outside the Champions League places.
Victory was secured at the Stadium of Light by virtue of an odd Cristian Benteke goal, the product either of an inspired toe-poked pass by Adam Lallana or a fortuitous scuff, depending on your loyalties.
Liverpool dominated possession for much of the game, but only occasionally threatened Vito Mannone's goal -- Roberto Firmino was twice denied by fine saves -- and failed to capitalise on Benteke's opener.
Klopp's side have struggled to score of late and, given how appallingly Sunderland have defended in recent weeks, Liverpool must have hoped to buck that trend here. But they made hard work of their win.
Hard work is all that can save Sunderland now. This was their fifth successive defeat, and while they might not be as dreadful as Aston Villa, they are seven points adrift of safety and fading fast.
Dick Advocaat left the club early in the season after concluding that the players simply weren't good enough to stay up. Sam Allardyce has challenged them to prove him wrong, but even he must believe that his predecessor had a point.
Having contained Liverpool in the first half, the Black Cats came out for the second in a daze and shipped a silly goal within 22 seconds of the restart. Allardyce's frustration was palpable. The only good news is that this weekend should bring an improvement. Their visitors are Villa.
2. Work to be done for Klopp
Jurgen Klopp commented on the English weather prior to kickoff, claiming that German teams didn't have to deal with the winds that can be found in Premier League football.
But while "Storm Frank" had swept England's northeast overnight, causing Sunderland to close their fan zone and, ironically, cancel a gig by local band Frankie & The Heartstrings, it had blown itself out by the time the game began. The real cause of Liverpool's issues was not the weather, but a failure to find any coherence in the final third.
In the six games since their 6-1 Capital One Cup destruction of Southampton on Dec. 2, Klopp's men have scored only four times, and this game offered compelling evidence of why they've become so coy in front of goal.
The Liverpool manager made just one change, bringing in Benteke to replace Divock Origi. Benteke had scored after coming on as a substitute against Leicester but, with the exception of the quick-witted finish that won the game, as well as a disappointing late miss, was kept quiet.
Mission accomplished, you might say given Benteke's was the only goal, and in the context of this one game, you'd be right. But Klopp must be concerned that he can't get more out of such expensive talent.
The Belgian striker revealed this week that he had had a "man conversation" with Klopp and had agreed to "run more," but it didn't seem to do much good here. He was often isolated or simply shut down by Sunderland's rearguard.
Not that Benteke was solely to blame. Firmino was unfortunate that Sunderland stopper Mannone somehow managed to tip a first-half shot onto the post, but he offered only occasional evidence that he's worth the £29 million Liverpool paid for him in the summer.
Philippe Coutinho brought little more than the odd long shot and Lallana, outside of that deft touch/miskick, was largely anonymous. Jordan Ibe went close late on when he blasted over the bar, but Liverpool shouldn't have to leave it so late against a team as poor as Sunderland.
The hosts played their part in denying chances, dropping deep and using Yann M'Vila initially in a holding role between two tight lines of four, but Liverpool spent nearly £100m on their starting front four and they're yet to see value for money.
3. Sunderland slump again
Allardyce has tried everything. He has deployed back threes and back fours. He has changed goalkeepers. He has moved strikers out wide and wingers into the centre. But Sunderland continue to lose.
Their brief revival, which featured back-to-back wins against Stoke and Crystal Palace, is just a memory now, lost amid this five-match losing streak. Over 45,000 came to Stadium of Light hoping for that run to end on Wednesday. They left disappointed.
Nerves were evident from the start. Sebastian Coates, playing against his former employers, scuffed a clearance and might have opened the door for Firmino to strike, had the Brazilian's first touch not been so poor.
THE BEST OF ESPN FC
- Bell: Liverpool fans make themselves heard
- Cox: Leicester improving | Why Poch should stay
- Okwonga: Man United's market | City's title hopes
- Laurens: PSG's pre-UCL issues | Hertha's curse
- Highlights (U.S. only): Stuttgart 1-3 BVB
- FC TV: Champions League W2W4 | LVG wrong
- News | Transfer | Toe Poke | Fantasy | FC TV | Podcast | MLS
It had been reported earlier in the day that Allardyce was close to landing Lorient centre-back Lamine Kone, a man noted for his uncompromising defensive style. The sooner he arrives, the better.
At the other end, there was more promise. Jermain Defoe stung Simon Mignolet's palms with a ferocious first-half shot that the Belgian just managed to turn over the bar, and Fabio Borini, another Liverpool old boy, sent a shot whistling past the post.
Injury to Jack Rodwell saw the introduction of Duncan Watmore, who highlighted the source of his popularity by tearing in on goal, losing possession and then harrying and harrassing Lallana all the way across the pitch until the ball was out of play.
That brought the loudest cheer of the night from the home fans. Rapid improvement is required.
Iain Macintosh is a writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.