Christian Benteke sealed victory for Liverpool for a second game running as his strike was enough to see off Sunderland 1-0 and keep them mired in the fight for Premier League survival.
Benteke was restored to Liverpool’s line-up at the Stadium of Light after scoring the winner against Leicester City as a substitute on Boxing Day and he again proved decisive, breaking the deadlock just 22 seconds into the second half of English football’s final game of 2015.
The Belgian’s sixth goal in seven games against the Black Cats was borne out of sloppy Sunderland play, which Sam Allardyce has failed to eradicate fully since replacing Dick Advocaat.
Allardyce has overseen five consecutive defeats since three early wins in the Sunderland hotseat and Wednesday’s announcement that a fee has been agreed for Lorient defender Lamine Kone shows the former West Ham boss is keen to make swift changes once the transfer window reopens on Friday.
The Wearsiders have pulled off miraculous escapes from peril in recent seasons and sit seven points from safety at the campaign’s halfway stage, leaving Allardyce needing something equally phenomenal to keep them up.
After highlight wins over Chelsea and Manchester City were followed by worrying defeats to Newcastle United and Watford, Jurgen Klopp may well be pleased with the grit Liverpool have shown after drawing level with sixth-placed Manchester United on the back of consecutive clean sheets.
With Divock Origi adding to Klopp’s lengthy injury list, Benteke again proved the hero, but Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana, playing in support of the Belgian, took up much of the visitors’ attacking burden.
Firmino could only scuff the ball out of play early on after former Liverpool defender Sebastian Coates’ jittery clearance gave Coutinho the chance to drive forward.
Jermain Defoe’s strike forced Simon Mignolet into his first stop and at the other end, after a Coutinho free-kick hit the roof of the net, Firmino drew a stunning save out of Vito Mannone, who got fingertips to divert the Brazilian’s swerving 25-yarder onto the left-hand post.
Allardyce was forced into a change on the half-hour as the injury-plagued Jack Rodwell, one of four changes to the side that had lost to Manchester City, was forced off and replaced by Duncan Watmore.
The striker’s energetic introduction – chasing down and tackling Nathaniel Clyne to appreciative home cheers – seemed to energise Sunderland, Fabio Borini and Adam Johnson shooting off target as the hosts gained momentum before the break.
But they totally failed to carry that into the second half and Benteke put Liverpool ahead with a calm finish after Lallana prodded Clyne’s diagonal pass beyond the Sunderland defence.
Allardyce’s frustrations deepened as Coates limped off and Kone’s imminent arrival will help soothe a backline wrecked by injuries.
Sunderland’s inability to penetrate a Liverpool defence that has shown signs of weakness all season left many in the stands to quietly ponder what 2016 will bring, though Benteke ponderously wasting a chance one-on-one in stoppage time – as he did on Boxing Day – raised a mirthful cheer from otherwise frustrated home fans.
Key Opta stats:
– Christian Benteke’s goal was the quickest second half goal scored in the Premier League this season (45:22) and the quickest after half-time in the PL since April (Jack Colback for Newcastle United v Tottenham)
– Sunderland have conceded the two quickest second half goals in the Premier League this season – Benteke for Liverpool (45:22) and Wayne Rooney for Manchester United (45:39) in September.
– Sunderland have conceded just three goals in their five Premier League home games under Sam Allardyce, but all three of these goals have contributed to 0-1 defeats.
– Sunderland have managed to pick up just two points in their last seven Premier League meetings with Liverpool (W0 D2 L5).
– Liverpool have won five games 1-0 this season, a Premier League joint-high along with West Brom.