Liverpool supporters were hoping for big things from Daniel Sturridge when he finally returned from a lengthy absence through injury, and they weren’t disappointed yesterday afternoon, as the 25-year old England striker scored the Reds’ second against West Ham United only 12 minutes after coming on as a sub at Anfield.
Adding to an earlier strike from Raheem Sterling, the goal sealed three points that elevate the Merseysiders up the table above their opponents and perhaps marks the tantalising start to a new ‘SAS’ partnership that will fire in the goals that have been the only thing lacking from Liverpool’s play during their recent upturn in form.
Left out of the squad altogether against former employers Chelsea, Sturridge began on the bench as Brendan Rodgers sensibly eases the long term injury casualty back into the side. He may be chomping at the bit to get back in and amongst the goals and make a contribution to the team again, but his boss recognises that it is essential that Sturridge is managed properly now and stays fit for the rest of the campaign.
The main team news surrounded who wasn’t even sitting on the bench, namely Steven Gerrard and Mario Balotelli. The former was rested after playing 120 minutes in midweek and ahead of the FA Cup fourth round replay at Bolton next Wednesday, while the latter was dropped after failing to seize the opportunity afforded him once again in the League Cup semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge. He only seems set to stay on Merseyside this January because Liverpool cannot shift him, not because the club wants to keep him.
The competitive match began brightly, with both teams going for it. For Liverpool, Sterling and Coutinho, at the heart of their attack, were massively influential, while Andy Carroll, returning to the club who spent £35 million to acquire his services four years ago to the day, was the Hammers’ focal point going forward.
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After Markovic saw his close range shot blocked and Lallana drilled a 30-yard volley way off target, the aforementioned Coutinho and Sterling combined wonderfully, the number 31 back-heeling the ball beautifully to the number 10 to complete a clever one-two. Unfortunately, Coutinho’s low shot was saved by Adrian at the near post.
Carroll headed two corners wide and into the arms of Mignolet respectively as Sam Allardyce’s side responded, but it was Liverpool who ended the first 45 minutes in the ascendancy, creating the best chance of the period during first half injury time.
Firstly, Liverpool should have clearly had a penalty as Joey O’Brien had his hands all over Sterling as he spun the 28-year old in the box. Unbelievably, referee Andre Marriner awarded the Reds nothing. Play went on, though, and the Hammers failed to clear the danger, the ball eventually falling perfectly for Markovic, who could only fire wide when well placed.
The Reds in general, and Raheem Sterling in particular, started where they left off after the interval. Full of energy and running, Sterling was causing West Ham’s defence all sorts of problems, floating a brilliant cross to Moreno, who sliced a volley well wide, and then snatching at a long range effort after linking up well with Markovic.
His endeavour was eventually rewarded on 51 minutes, however, as a fluid Liverpool move culminated with his fine finish breaking the deadlock. Sterling chested down Moreno’s cross to Coutinho, who subsequently sent Sterling through on goal with a delightful first time pass. The 20-year old did the rest from five yards out.
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Coutinho nearly got in on the goalscoring fun himself fifteen minutes later, but Adrian saved his low shot well after the Brazilian skipped past three defenders. On 68 minutes, the moment everyone inside Anfield had been waiting for arrived, as Daniel Sturridge replaced Lazar Markovic to make his first appearance in a Red shirt since the third League game of the season at White Hart Lane.
It only took him twelve minutes to make an impact. Receiving a neat pass from Coutinho, he took a lovely touch before drilling it low beyond Adrian to the delight of Kopites everywhere. Daniel Sturridge is back, and he promises to be better than ever.
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West Ham appeared to admit defeat at that point, and although O’Brien found the net from a corner kick deep into injury time, he couldn’t prevent Liverpool keeping their third consecutive clean sheet in the League for the first time since the start of the 2013/2014 season because Nolan was penalised for blatantly fouling Mignolet.
All in all, it was a great day to be a Liverpool fan. With Sterling, Coutinho, Lallana and Sturridge all on top form and performing in unison, Sakho, Skrtel and Can somehow forming a rock solid back three and Mignolet improving with every game, optimism abounds among Kopites who widely expected to endure, rather than enjoy, this season.
Beat Bolton in midweek and then emerge victorious from next Saturday’s Merseyside derby, and Liverpool will really be cooking.