Liverpool keep pace with top-four chase in hard-fought win over Swansea
SWANSEA, Wales -- Three quick thoughts from Liverpool's 1-0 win over Swansea at Liberty Stadium on Monday night.
1. Liverpool set up Super Sunday
Sunday it is, then. Should Liverpool beat Manchester United on Sunday, they will leapfrog their fiercest rivals and a Champions League qualification spot will be in their possession. Brendan Rodgers' team have not been so high since the opening weekend of the season, but it can now set a course to return to Europe's biggest competition.
Jordan Henderson's winner owed plenty to the sodden conditions in Swansea, and victory was celebrated with no little relief by visiting fans as a hugely difficult assignment at a ground where both United and Arsenal have been defeated.
Truthfully, it was only through the excellence of Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet that his team entered the break with the scores level. Saves from Bafetimbi Gomis, and twice from the boot of Gylfi Sigurdsson, were Liverpool's best plays of a first half in which their passing was wayward. Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling were little but bystanders, while Philippe Coutinho was yet more anonymous.
The Brazilian's sudden appearance in forcing an excellent save from Lukasz Fabianski just before the hour mark suggested that Liverpool had rediscovered their step. Swansea's fluency concurrently began to go missing. At such moments is Liverpool's greater quality expected to seize the moment, which has been the pattern of the revival that has followed December's exit from this season's Champions League.
That was perhaps Rodgers' thinking when he introduced Steven Gerrard, back after five weeks' absence. It was rapidly turning into the type of clutch game the skipper has rescued so often. Yet it was Henderson, whom Gerrard had taken the armband from when taking to the field in the 64th minute, who scored, fortuitously, after Jordi Amat's last-ditch tackle rebounded the ball off Henderson's shin and beyond a dumbfounded Fabianski.
Gerrard's contribution was thus one of containment rather than inspiration as Rodgers' team finally worked out how to keep his former club at bay. In doing so, they took themselves to the shoulder of United.
2. Gerrard the joker
Amid Liverpool's chase for the Champions League and an FA Cup run, Gerrard is the name in the spotlight. The long goodbye is entering its final lap.
This was the night he made his return after injury, though only as a substitute. He shyly took part in a pre-match warmup session of keep-ball with the other subs before taking his place on the bench. During the first half, a young local made a cheeky autograph request while Gerrard was making a shuttle run, but had to settle for a ruffle of his hair.
All the while, opposing versions of his terrace anthem were sung; even when on the sideline, centre stage is his, and will remain so until May. And when Liverpool struggled as they did here, he is a joker to be played.
There would have been little footballing sense in restoring Gerrard to the starting lineup considering Liverpool had won all six Premier League games without him -- although with him on the bench, they toiled in similar fashion to last weekend's 0-0 FA Cup draw with Blackburn.
Gerrard's stand-in, Henderson, swiftly got himself booked for a hack on Swansea left-back Neil Taylor. Henderson, like Sterling, is a face of Liverpool's future who currently finds himself at a contract impasse with his club. Fellow hard-bargain driver Sterling's tug on a speeding Wayne Routledge earned him a booking, too, and reflected his team's frustration in the opening 30 minutes.
There was a distinct lack of control that a peak Gerrard might have been able to regain, and the home fans began to take delight in the over-deliberate passing among Liverpool's back three.
3. Swans flight to be admired
There is no award for pound-for-pound achievement in the Premier League, but if there was, then Swansea would have to be a leading contender, if not undisputed champion. Their four years in the top division are a parable on how to do things properly, carefully and sensibly, not allowing expectation to take the club's ambitions ahead of itself. Garry Monk's stewardship, which celebrated its first anniversary only last month, is on course to land the Swans' highest finish yet.
He may not have the star name of Michael Laudrup or the outward self-assurance of Rodgers, who won himself the Liverpool job three years ago by taking Swansea to the Premier League and keeping them there in style, but his short time in charge is already cherished. Joe Allen, who played for Swansea in three different divisions, was welcomed at the Liberty like a favourite son.
Swansea have become a club where reputations can be made and regained. Jonjo Shelvey, once memorably described by Rodgers during that infamous "Being: Liverpool" documentary as having "all the tools," talked ahead of the game of his happiness in South Wales. The pain of being offloaded has been forgotten amid a new life, and Jack Cork, his midfield partner here, is attempting a similar journey, having failed to play enough of a part in Southampton's equally impressive project.
In Swansea's excellent beginning to the match, in which Liverpool were failing to land anything of a blow on their opponents, it was Cork's harrying, the drive of Shelvey and the intelligence of Ki Sung-Yueng that pinned back the visitors. Monk's team were responding to disappointment at Tottenham a fortnight ago with vigour and adventure.
Rodgers' 3-4-3 formation has been a runaway success since it was implemented in December, but Monk had clearly done his homework, laying out his own team in a pattern that meant the back three, Liverpool's least dangerous players, were forced into the majority of possession.
Swansea have made an art out of making the big boys uncomfortable in this farthest western outpost of the Premier League, and Liverpool long looked like being their latest victims.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.