Philippe Coutinho injury overshadows Liverpool win over Sunderland
LIVERPOOL, England -- Liverpool beat Sunderland 2-0, but they suffered a couple of injury blows that could come back to haunt them.
1. Liverpool go top, but Coutinho injury a concern
Liverpool are, for a few hours at least, top of the Premier League, and if the hallmark of a title-winning team is to find a way through when not at your best then this win at a nervy Anfield bodes well.
Divock Origi, a first-half substitute for the injured Philippe Coutinho, broke the deadlock with a 75th-minute cross-shot and a late James Milner penalty ensured a dogged Sunderland went home with nothing for their troubles. The one negative point for manager Jurgen Klopp's team will be the loss of the influential Coutinho, who departed on a stretcher shortly after the half-hour.
Liverpool were short of fluency and, at times, overly hasty. It was a patchy first half-hour from them and the picture worsened when Coutinho -- who had been well shackled by Jason Denayer -- appeared to receive a nasty crack on the foot in a challenge with Didier Ndong and, after a lengthy delay, was stretchered from the pitch.
Divock Origi replaced him and Liverpool did, at least, step up the pressure before half-time, Dejan Lovren heading wide when left unmarked at a free kick and later thudding a long-range effort not far off target, with Sadio Mane also seeing a low shot saved.
But the closing stages of the first period were a precursor to what followed. Eight minutes after the break, Georginio Wijnaldum reached a delightful, juggled Emre Can pass but volleyed agonisingly across goal and the outstretched boot of James Milner. Can flashed a bobbling volley wide in the 65th minute; the attacking intent had all come from Liverpool, with Sunderland struggling to get out, but clear chances were few.
A rare glimmer from the visitors saw Duncan Watmore, forced wide, thwarted by Lorius Karius before his lofted follow-up was cleared. But the traffic was more or less one-way. Roberto Firmino drilling across goal but beyond his teammates, before Origi went one better when he checked inside Watmore on the left of the area and curled a low effort towards the far post that Jordan Pickford appeared to see late.
The tension was released around Anfield and Liverpool were out of jail. Ndong's 90th minute foul on Sadio Mane and Milner's unfussy spot kick conversion provided icing for the cake but, with Firmino withdrawn with an apparent injury before the end, Liverpool may yet have issues on their hands.
2. Hosts edgy but they find a way to win
For Liverpool, it was one of those afternoons where it did not matter how the job was done. Against opponents this disciplined it can be difficult to work up a rhythm, and it was certainly not a match that will merit too long in end-of-season highlights packages.
But, spurred on by an anxious but increasingly noisy Anfield crowd, they did enough and dug themselves in further for the long haul of a tight title race.
The hosts looked unusually tentative in possession during the opening period and did little to dismiss the thought that an element of their attacking incisiveness is lost when Adam Lallana -- who missed his second consecutive game through injury -- is unavailable. That first 45 minutes included a moment that will inevitably be widely broadcast over the coming days when Karius, attempting a short goal kick, improbably skewed the ball out for a Sunderland corner. It was shorthand for a performance lacking the confidence and composure that has hallmarked the majority of their season to date.
Klopp was a prominent, animated figure in his technical area after half-time. Perhaps a few words had been said; there was certainly more urgency to Liverpool, and more directness with Origi leading the line and Firmino taking Coutinho's left-sided spot but their touch was still marginally off.
Again Klopp sought to liven proceedings up, this time whirling his arms around to life the home support. They responded, and so did Liverpool. When you cannot play your best football, it is important to simply keep on going. Liverpool eventually found the intensity required to claw out a big three points.
3. Sunderland defeated but looking like a Moyes side
If there was a consolation for Sunderland, it was that they finally appear to be bearing a few of their manager's hallmarks. This looked much more like a David Moyes side in its discipline and application, and while defeat is a setback after two morale-boosting wins it was one that should not be viewed too negatively in context.
Moyes opted for a 4-5-1 here, with Victor Anichebe -- seemingly reborn after three goals in his last two games -- starting wide on the left. It was a system designed, first and foremost, to stop Liverpool and the positioning of Denayer underlined the point.
From his perch in front of the defence, Denayer was tasked with man-marking Coutinho whenever he drifted infield, to the extent that at times it seemed all other considerations were secondary as long as the Brazilian schemer was in his sights.
By half-time Moyes could be satisfied that his approach was paying off -- although there was the concern that Sunderland, who had shown some appetite to commit men forward on the counter earlier in the game, had been sucked increasingly deep as the interval neared.
The latter pattern continued in the second half with little respite. Patrick van Aanholt squandered a promising counter-attacking opportunity shortly before the hour and Duncan Watmore briefly scented blood but it had become an afternoon for sticking heads and limbs in wherever needed -- and sometimes one for interventions outside the laws of the game, like John O'Shea's cynical tug-back on a breaking Origi.
Denayer's block from Sadio Mane 18 minutes from time was typical of their defensive application, but three minutes later the deciding blow was struck. It was hard on a team that does, at last, appear to be competitive -- and it will be crucial to their Premier League fortunes that they retain this level of organisation and commitment.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.