Raheem Sterling scored twice and Luis Suarez broke the 30-goal barrier as Barclays Premier League leaders Liverpool beat Norwich 3-2 at Carrow Road to move five points clear at the top of the table.
Scorers: Norwich City - Hooper (54), Snodgrass (77); Liverpool - Sterling (4, 62), Suarez (11)
The Reds showed their intent to make the most of Chelsea’s shock home defeat by Sunderland on Saturday, and romped 2-0 ahead inside ten minutes as the relegation-threatened Canaries were ripped apart with a superb 25-yard effort from Sterling, before Suarez tucked home from close range.
However, Norwich – just two points above the dropzone – rallied after Gary Hooper reduced the deficit following a poor punch by Simon Mignolet, only for Sterling to slot home a deflected third on the break. Robert Snodgrass set up a tense finale with his far post header with 13 minutes left, but the Reds secured what looks to be a priceless victory in their bid to win a first championship in more than 20 years.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers revealed they had used the words of Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, as their inspiration for the victory. Rodgers delivered an emotional address at the service which commemorated 25 years since the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives at the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.
The Reds manager again looked for inspiration out of what was such a tragedy for the club and city. “We were at the memorial service this week, there was hope for the families there as well,” said Rodgers. “I used some words of Margaret Aspinall, we put them up on the wall [in the dressing room], she talked about stress and how it can prove difficult for you, but it can also offer you great determination to fight, and that is what we gave the players today. This is all one club at this moment in time and we are all fighting to achieve the ultimate goal.”
Rodgers added: “Liverpool is an incredible club. To see that [from the fans] is like bringing you back in time, the welcome we got in our last game. The supporters have been given hope really. They are proud of us, to watch the team attack and play with the verve they are, they put banners hanging over the training ground, there is a lot of nostalgia there for the supporters because they are proud of their team. This is a real iconic football club and we are trying to set the team up to attack.”
Rodgers, who maintains his squad had not looked to take any extra incentive from Chelsea’s defeat, praised the way his side took an early stranglehold at Carrow Road. “We showed great quality and were nerveless in our possession and control, but credit to Norwich because they changed their shape for the second half and got the goal which gave the crowd a lift,” the Northern Irishman said.
“It was always going to be tough after that, but we showed everything again, the quality of our movement and play was exceptional. We had to show character, resilience and determination, which we did in bundles.
“It was a big victory, and congratulations to the players because we can finish no lower than third, which guarantees Champions League football, and at the start of the season everyone thought it would be a struggle for us to get to fourth, so it shows the magnitude of the effort the players have put in.”
The Liverpool manager praised the impact of England World Cup hopeful Sterling in the absence of injured forward Daniel Sturridge. “He is arguably the best young player in European football at the moment, if he does not win the PFA Young Player of the Year this season, it is ridiculous,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers, though, is determined to keep everyone grounded. He said: “You never get too carried away when you win, and you never get too disappointed when you lose. You can’t win every game, but dealing with the expectancy is all part of being at a huge club like Liverpool. All I know is my players give me everything and I cannot ask for any more. For me, that is what is important.”
With Sturridge missing because of a hamstring injury and Jordan Henderson suspended following his red card against Manchester City, Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva came into the Liverpool midfield, while Suarez, who has scored 11 goals against the Canaries in their last four meetings, led the attack.
It was Sterling, though, who made an instant impact, firing Liverpool in front after just four minutes. The ball was worked into the middle from the left, where Sterling held it up before turning goalwards, sidestepping Bradley Johnson and gleefully cracking a superb 25-yard effort into the corner past John Ruddy.
Liverpool went 2-0 up on nine minutes. This time, Sterling was the provider as he cut the ball into the Norwich area from the left and Suarez arrived on cue to steer the ball into the bottom right corner for his 30th goal of the season.
Scotland winger Snodgrass was fortunate to only get a yellow card from referee Andre Marriner after sliding through Allen out on the far touchline.
Norwich forced a spell of pressure at the start of the second half, and pulled a goal back on 54 minutes. A high cross in from the right by Snodgrass was punched by Mignolet, under pressure from Johnson, onto Martin Skrtel. The ball dropped to Hooper four yards out and the former Celtic man slotted home his first goal since Boxing Day.
Suddenly, Carrow Road came alive as the hosts sniffed the most unlikely of fightbacks. Liverpool, though, remained dangerous on the break and it was 3-1 on 62 minutes, as a stray pass from Norwich midfielder Johnson was punished in clinical fashion.
Sterling picked the loose ball up just inside his own half before darting forward and riding two challenges into the Norwich penalty area. Johnson had tracked back, but as he went to block the shot, the ball cannoned up and over Ruddy into the net.
Norwich threatened to make a game of it again on 77 minutes when Snodgrass got up above Jon Flanagan to head in a deep left-wing cross from Redmond.
Mignolet showed good reactions to save a downward header from substitute Ricky van Wolfwinskel, who has scored just once since his club-record £8.5million summer move from Sporting Lisbon.
Liverpool, though, saw out the closing stages without any real further scares and could have added a fourth in stoppage time when Ruddy saved from Suarez, Brendan Rodger’s side recording an 11th straight league win to have one hand on the trophy ahead of the showdown with Chelsea at Anfield.