Cruel loss of Coutinho overshadows Liverpool's win over battling Sunderland
It took Philippe Coutinho half an hour to lose his man marker, Jason Denayer, and when he did Liverpool were left wishing that he hadn't.
No sooner had the Brazilian found space and he was writhing in agony, his right foot having been caught by the follow through of Didier Ndong's clearance. A stretcher was called for and Coutinho, arguably the Premier League's most impressive performer of the season so far, was carried off.
It is upon such moments whole seasons can turn. Just as everything seems to be going so well, fate intervenes to create a new narrative, taking momentum in a different direction and transforming the mood for the worse. Liverpool might not be overly reliant on Coutinho, their attack has too many facets for that to be the case, but he is their best and most inspirational player.
That was the reason why David Moyes tasked Denayer with shadowing Coutinho's every move, the hope being that by restricting the best individual, Sunderland's chances of neutering their opponents would increase. Should their talisman be absent for any length of time, and the distress Coutinho was in as he departed did little to assuage fears that a spell on the sidelines is likely, Liverpool will have to find a way of coping without him.
In the first instance, that led to Divock Origi being introduced as Jurgen Klopp reconfigured his attack, moving Roberto Firmino from his usual central position to occupy the role that Coutinho had vacated. Had Daniel Sturridge been available, the Liverpool manager would almost certainly have turned to him but the forward had been ruled out on the day of the game after a calf problem had flared up. With Adam Lallana also ruled out with a groin strain, Liverpool's attacking options were suddenly weaker than they had been, hence the presence of Ben Woodburn, a 17-year-old striker, on the substitutes bench.
This was not the day for Liverpool to lack their usual firepower. Not with Sunderland unwilling to reprise the role of lambs to the slaughter that Leicester City, Hull City and Watford had performed on recent visits to Anfield. If Moyes's deployment of Denayer underlined the visitors' intentions, their collective belligerence ensured that Liverpool were unable to build up an early head of steam. Even before Coutinho went off, all of the indications were that if Liverpool were going to win it was not going to be easy. Sunderland had come to make things as difficult for them as they possibly could.
This, then, represented a test for Klopp and his players, particularly after two points were dropped in their previous game away to Southampton. Having thrived despite a testing start to the season, the run of fixtures which, on paper at least, had been viewed by many as an opportunity for Liverpool to accumulate enough points to perhaps build up a lead at the top of the Premier League. Few had predicted that three halves of football, two against Southampton and another against Sunderland, would pass without them scoring a single goal.
For the second weekend in succession, Liverpool were controlling the game without commanding the scoreline and they were not helping their own cause with a number of players being guilty of taking too many touches in promising positions or of failing to offer their usual energy and drive. With morale starting to flag, Klopp decided to add some urgency of his own, turning into a touchline Yosemite Sam, ranting and raving at the crowd to get behind the team and the team to give the crowd a reason to get excited.
These may not have been desperate times, even a draw would have been sufficient for Liverpool to retain their place in the top three, but their manager's actions most definitely fell into the category of desperate measures. Liverpool reacted, it was not as if they had any choice, forcing Sunderland deeper and deeper until they retreated into their own penalty area. The siege had been a long time in coming but all of a sudden it was on. Having held their opponents at arms length for so long, Sunderland knew that their chances of survival rested on absorbing the barrage of punches that was coming their way.
In the event, it was a single blow from Origi that ended their resistance. Cutting in from the left, the substitute opened his body up and in doing so created the angle to beat Jordan Pickford with a wonderfully accurate curling shot. It was exactly the kind of goal for which Coutinho has become renowned and it was his replacement who had scored it. The importance of it lay beyond mimicry, though, it was to be found in the victory that it gave Liverpool, one that was confirmed by James Milner's late penalty, and the knowledge that they had found a way to win without their best player.
That might be something they will have to do again in the coming weeks unless Coutinho's injury turns out to be just a scare.
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