Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League

Liverpool 2-1 Sunderland: Nervy Reds go second, seal seventh-straight win (video)

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Liverpool’s Premier League title charge continues despite a tension filled 2-1 victory over Sunderland at Anfield on Wednesday.

It took the Reds almost 45 minutes to break down a stubborn Sunderland side, but their inspirational captain Steven Gerrard curled in a tremendous free kick just before the interval to ease any nerves around from the Kop.

Moments after half time Daniel Sturridge scored a sublime curler for his 20th PL goal of the season — he and Suarez are only the third strike duo in league history to score over 20 goals each in the same campaign — as the Englishman then went close to a third after rattling the crossbar.

To their credit Sunderland kept battling away and the arrival of Adam Johnson and Ki off the bench pepped up the Black Cats, with Ki pulling a goal back in the 75th minute to leave the Liverpool faithful on their edge of their seats for the final minutes.

However Brendan Rodgers’ men held on for their seventh-straight win to go second in the standings, as they now sit just one point behind leaders Chelsea. As for Sunderland, they are still in the relegation zone and are three points from safety with a game in hand.

(MORE: Steven Gerrard – “We can’t make it nervy” as Liverpool’s defensive worries resurface)

A strangely subdued start played out at Anfield, as Sunderland’s five-man defense easily thwarted Liverpool’s early advances. The Black Cats barely threatened going forward, as U.S. international Jozy Altidore and recalled loan striker Connor Wickham cut frustrated figures up top for the away side.

Midway through the first half Liverpool started to come to life, as their superior possession began to pay dividends. However Glen Johnson and Joe Allen both fired way over from the edge of the box, as the Reds started to snatch at any chance that fell their way.

For the rest of the first half Liverpool kept hold of the ball but struggled to carve out many clear openings, as the home fans started to voice their discontent with several sloppy passes beginning to pepper the Reds’ play. But then in the 39th minute captain fantastic himself turned up to put Liverpool ahead, as Santiago Vergini scythed down Luis Suarez and a free kick was award right on the edge of the ‘d’. Vergini could’ve easily been sent off for the tackle on Suarez, as he looked to be last man, but referee Kevin Friend only dished out a yellow.

source: Getty Images
Gerrard bent in Liverpool’s first with a superb free kick.

From the resulting set piece Gerrard curled in a stunning effort to score his 11th PL goal of the season to lift the tension at Anfield as the home side went in 1-0 up at the break.

(MORE: Latest Premier League standings)

Within three minutes of the restart Liverpool were 2-0 up, as Sturridge showed exactly why he’s one of the hottest strikers in European soccer. The England international received the ball on the right hand side of the box, shifted it onto his left foot and the curled in an unstoppable shot into the top corner to add another stunner with his 25th goal of the season.

Liverpool’s swagger returned after that goal, as a marauding Philippe Coutinho helped set up Sturridge moments later but the Liverpool striker saw his goalbound shot blocked… by his own strike partner Suarez, as the Uruguayan international couldn’t get out of the way.

The home side were now well on top, as Suarez picked up Gerrard’s cross-field superbly and then cut inside of Vergini’s lackluster challenge before rifling a shot just past the far post. Sunderland brought on Adam Johnson and Ki to try and breathe impetus into their attack, but the away team barely threatened as they were outplayed, out-possessed and out-battled by a hungry Liverpool side.

However Sunderland did improve as the game wore on, with Lee Cattermole clattering the crossbar courtesy of a controlled slice from the edge of the box, then Ki skied the rebound. Moments later it was Sturridge’s turn to hammer the woodwork, as the 24-year-old curled a delightful right-footed effort towards the top corner but he also smashed the bar.

In the 76th minute Sunderland pulled a goal back, as Ki knocked home after a corner from the right found the South Korean unmarked in the box. In fairness it was no more than the away team deserved, as Poyet’s men stuck to the task and took the game to Liverpool in the closing stages.

Late on a vicious inswinging free kick from the left was headed towards goal by John O’Shea, but U.S. international striker Altidore was crashing  in behind him and would’ve been better placed to seal an unlikely equalizer.

As it was the Reds thwarted Sunderland’s late rally, as the Merseyside club remain in the hunt for their first-ever PL crown. Be wanred Liverpool fans: there will be plenty more nervous nights like this in the coming weeks.

LINEUPS

Liverpool: Mignolet; Flanagan, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson; Gerrard, Allen, Henderson; Coutinho; Suárez, Sturridge (Sterling, 77′)

Goals: Gerrard (39′), Sturridge (48′)

Sunderland: Mannone; Bardlsey, O’Shea, Brown, Dossena (Colback, 83′); Wickham (Ki, 66′), Vergini, Cattermile, Bridcutt, Giaccherini (Johnson, 61′); Altidore

Goal: Ki (76′)

Kaka hoping to stay in Orlando beyond 2017

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 08:  Kaka #10 of Orlando City SC dribbles the ball during an MLS soccer match between the New York City FC and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on March 8, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
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Kaka is enjoying life in Florida.

The former Ballon d’Or winner is hoping to stay with Orlando City SC beyond the end of his contract, which runs its course after the 2017 season.

[ MORE: Real Madrid now winless in three ]

Kaka has been very good for the Lions, scoring 19 goals and 15 assists in 53 total matches. Reports had said he’s skip town after the third year of the deal, but Kaka refutes that idea.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“A misunderstanding because I am very happy here,” Kaká told reporters at MLS Media Day on Tuesday. “I had a three year contract, so this is the last year under this contract, but my idea is to stay here.

“Of course we never know what can happen at the end of the season or during the season, but my idea for now is to stay in Orlando and stay in the league.”

Kaka turns 35 in April, but has been consistently good even if injuries kept him to 24 MLS contests last season. If he puts forth a similar season, there’s little reason for Orlando — or another team — not to take a chance on Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite.

Gabriel Jesus cleared, could make Man City debut

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 20:  Gabriel Jesus of Palmeiras runs with the ball during the match between Palmeiras and Botafogo for the Brazilian Series A 2016 at Allianz Parque on November 20, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
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Gabriel Jesus could go straight into Manchester City’s starting lineup.

The 19-year-old Brazilian has finally been cleared to suit up for the English side after finishing a title-winning campaign with Palmeiras.

With four goals in six caps for the Brazil national team and an Olympic gold medal with their U-23 side, Jesus is among the hottest prospects in the world.

[ MORE: City fifth in “Money League” ]

City is struggling, and the fresh injection of attacking talent could be music to the ears of boss Pep Guardiola (who, fun fact, celebrates his 46th birthday today).

From the Manchester Evening News:

“He’s a great player. Going to Europe is a good thing for a player. He will grow quicker, he will start to understand football in another way and also be respected inside the football scene.

“I guess that for Gabriel Jesus it was a good thing to leave Brazilian soccer, he did everything he had could in [Brazil]. He’s going to a very difficult, competitive [type of football] but I think that he can be successful.”

Jesus had 21 goals in 46 matches this season with Palmeiras.

Casemiro: “Real Madrid aren’t ever allowed to lose”

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 18:  Henrique Casemiro of Real Madrid heads the ball against Daniel Wass of Celta de Vigo during the Copa del Rey Quarter Final, First Leg match between Real Madrid CF and  Celta Vigo at Bernabeu on January 18, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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The pressure at Real Madrid can be overwhelming, and the players who thrive there generally have thick skin and short memories.

They also take losses pretty seriously.

That goes for the manager as well, as both Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane and Casemiro have reacted to Real’s third-straight non-win in serious fashion.

[ MORE: Real no longer No. 1 in money ]

Remember, this is coming after the first match of the “slump” — a 3-3 draw with Sevilla — was the final match of a world record 40-match unbeaten run.

Casemiro, whose record in the Real Madrid lineup is as good as anyone’s, said this (via Marca):

“Yes, it’s worrying to lose again,” he said just after the full-time whistle. “Real Madrid aren’t ever allowed to lose. The defeat against Sevilla has hurt us.”

And if you want to tell Casemiro to relax, that only one of those matches was in league play and the club still leads the table by a point with a match-in-hand on nearly everyone… well… enter Zidane.

“I’m the one responsible and I must find the solution,” he said in his post-match press conference. “I wasn’t surprised by the way Celta played, as we knew that they’re a team that can really hurt you. I’m not worried, although it’s a bad moment. We know that we can overcome it and we are going to overcome it.”

I’m far from a Real Madrid fan, and you can credit Florentino Perez’s ideas and the hanky-waving fans for a lot of that, but it’s impossible not admire how seriously Real takes the business of winning. And maybe, just maybe, the fan and board expectations occasionally help the squad.

Run-up shootouts, per-player match limits on FIFA’s agenda

Marco van Basten, Dutch football manager and former football player, poses for a photo on the green carpet while arriving prior to the The Best - FIFA Football Awards 2016 ceremony held at the Swiss TV studio in Zurich, Switzerland, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.  (Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP)
Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP
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Restricting players to 60 games a year. Replacing penalty shootouts with eight-second run-ups. Introducing orange cards to send players off for 10 minutes. Scrapping offside.

Former AC Milan and Netherlands forward Marco van Basten is using his role as technical director at FIFA to propose a series of changes to soccer to stir a debate.

[ MORE: Costa back for Chelsea ]

Rather than using his job to meddle, Van Basten highlights the need to preserve soccer as the world’s most popular sport.

“I have spoken to a lot of coaches and players,” Van Basten said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We have to promote quality instead of quantity. We are playing too much football now. We have to defend players because they have to play so much and are not fresh or fit anymore.

“That’s bad for the quality of the game. Even in June when the big tournaments are played players cannot perform to their maximum because now if players are really successful they can play up to 75 official games in the year. I think that’s a bit too much and maybe they should stop at 55 or 60.”

Although FIFA will expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from 2026, that won’t burden players with any additional games. Instead, clubs sides would have to explore reducing the number of fixtures, potentially by reducing the number of lucrative friendly games played on tours.

[ MORE: Real Madrid now winless in three ]

“That’s all for money but we have to think about football and not money,” said Van Basten, who was hired by FIFA in September. “For a lot of clubs that’s not easy. But there is enough money in football.

“(Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi are earning so much money. If they are earning a little bit less but performing better that’s good for football.”

Asked about countries like England or France no longer playing two cup competitions alongside their league fixtures, Van Basten said: “In my opinion that should be an interesting discussion.”

Van Basten knows some of radical changes he proposed to the AP could make traditionalists uneasy. But the 1992 FIFA world player of the year wants to ensure the global game has a say on its future.

“We should not just let the game be organized by those with the money,” he said from FIFA HQ in Zurich. “The big clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Real Madrid who have everything.”

“In football you need opponents, competition because if you are alone with two or three clubs controlling everything you don’t have any competition.”

Here are some potential changes to soccer proposed by Van Basten:

PENALTY SHOOTOUTS

Rather than burdening players with an additional 30 minutes of action when cup games are level after 90 minutes, Van Basten is suggesting going straight to penalties.

“I think everybody is pretty tired after 120 minutes,” Van Basten said.

Now penalties are a test of nerves with players having one chance to beat the goalkeeper from the penalty spot.

“Maybe the player should start 25 meters from goal and then you can dribble the goalkeeper or shoot early,” he said. “But you have to make a goal within eight seconds. It’s more skill and less luck. It’s maybe a bit more spectacular. It’s more football but it’s still nervous for the player.”

NO OFFSIDE

Scrapping the offside rule could make soccer more visually appealing, Van Basten advises.

“I think it can be very interesting watching a game without offside,” he said. “Football now is already looking a lot like handball with nine or ten defenders in front of the goal. It’s difficult for the opposition to score a goal as it’s very difficult to create something in the small pieces of space they give you.

“So if you play without offside you get more possibilities to score a goal.”

FOUR QUARTERS

Soccer is increasingly intense and grueling, with a single 15-minute break between 45-minute halves.

“We are trying to help the game, to let the game develop in a good way,” Van Basten said. “We want to have a game which is honest, which is dynamic, a nice spectacle so we should try to do everything to help that process.”

Introducing four quarters could be advantageous.

“The coach can have three times with his players during the game,” Van Basten said.

SINBINS

Now there is no middle ground between players being shown a yellow card and receiving a red card and then being removed for the rest of the game.

“Maybe an orange card could be shown that sees a player go out of the game for 10 minutes for incidents that are not heavy enough for a red card,” Van Basten said.

Such an instance could be when a player commits repeat fouls that didn’t warrant yellow cards or obstruct opponents. Five misdemeanors could earn a player a place in a sin bin for 10 minutes, Van Basten said.

NEXT STEPS

Any changes to the laws of the game cannot be forced through by Van Basten, however close he is to FIFA President Gianni Infantino. He said he wants to listen to the views of world before any proposals are taken to the game’s law-making body, The International Football Association Board. FIFA controls half of the eight votes on IFAB, with the other four retained by the British associations.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports