SUNDERLAND, England — Three points from the Stadium of Light as Liverpool dropped points in what could be a costly 2-2 draw with Sunderland…
1. Liverpool suffer setback at Sunderland
A title race is all about momentum and Liverpool have certainly built up a head of steam since losing to Bournemouth in order to stay within sight of runaway leaders Chelsea. But by drawing 2-2 at Sunderland, having been pegged back twice by two Jermain Defoe penalties, Liverpool’s momentum has now stalled at the worst possible moment considering the fixtures ahead for Jurgen Klopp’s team in the coming weeks.
Sunday’s Anfield encounter with League Two minnows Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup third round will get in the way of the title charge and deny Liverpool an immediate chance to bounce back from this result, as will next week’s EFL Cup semifinal first leg against Southampton. And with a trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United next up in the Premier League on Jan. 15, followed by a huge home game against Chelsea at the end of the month, Liverpool will know they have thrown away two valuable points by drawing on Wearside.
Klopp’s team can overcome that disappointment at a stroke by winning at United and then defeating Chelsea. But by failing to claim three points at Sunderland, they have cranked up the pressure on themselves to deliver against United and Chelsea.
By making only one change to his starting lineup — Daniel Sturridge replaced the injured Jordan Henderson — Klopp perhaps made a mistake by failing to freshen up his team following a tough encounter with Manchester City less than two days ago. Liverpool certainly looked leggy against a Sunderland team that had been hammered 4-1 at Burnley on Saturday.
But with Sunderland fighting for survival in the bottom three, Liverpool will have left the Stadium of Light counting the cost of dropped points because they have now given the chasing pack (which includes Man United) the chance to haul them in during the coming weeks.
2. Henderson’s absence hurts Liverpool
Jordan Henderson divides opinion, certainly at the international level where many doubt his credentials as a top-class midfielder, but his value to Liverpool was highlighted during his absence against Sunderland.
The Liverpool captain was forced to sit this game out due to a heel injury that was exacerbated during the 1-0 victory against Manchester City on New Year’s Eve. Jurgen Klopp is hopeful the problem will not result on a spell on the sidelines for Henderson and the German’s concern appeared well-founded as his team toiled away against David Moyes’ strugglers.
Playing Henderson’s role in deep midfield, Emre Can failed to offer the dynamism and energy of his captain and Liverpool suffered as a result. The German midfielder was guilty of giving the ball away too often and he also failed to provide the attacking runs that are a central part of Henderson’s game.
If Henderson’s lay-off is restricted only to missing one or two games, including Sunday’s FA Cup third-round tie, then the rest may ultimately work in the favour of both player and club. But if he is forced to sit out the trip to Manchester United and even the Anfield clash with Chelsea on Jan. 31, the England midfielder will be a huge loss for Liverpool.
3. Hope for Sunderland if Januzaj can stay focused
Despite their perilous position in the relegation zone, the worrying injury list and loss of three key players to the Africa Cup of Nations, Sunderland showed enough by drawing against Liverpool to suggest they have the fight, and even the quality, to stay in the Premier League this season.
It is no revelation to say that Defoe is absolutely crucial to Sunderland’s hopes, but the performance of Man United loanee Adnan Januzaj emphasised the Belgian’s value to Moyes’ team. But the key with Januzaj is keeping him focused on the football and the job at hand.
Having made a spectacular breakthrough under Moyes at United, Januzaj has drifted for the past two seasons and his loan at the Stadium of Light is all about getting back on track and ensuring that he doesn’t waste his obvious talent. He can be lazy, wasteful and greedy at times, but when he is on his game, his trickery and vision can be devastating and he linked well time and again with Defoe against Liverpool.
Moyes knows how to make Januzaj tick; that is the positive for Sunderland, but one the manager must work because the young winger is prone to switching off and becoming as much of a liability to his own team as a threat to the opposition.
With Didier Ndong, Lamine Kone and Wahbi Khazri all due to depart for the Africa Cup of Nations, Sunderland’s resources are going to be stretched for up to six weeks. But they are not a lost cause yet by any means, and Moyes’ track record at Everton was one where he regularly saw his team get stronger as the campaign drew to a close.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_