AHEAD of a second half of the season that will see all but Manchester United of the top eight having to travel to Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers warned opposition managers that a visit to Anfield would bring their “toughest 90 minutes of the season”.
Well, yesterday his players were as good as their manager’s word as Hull City’s 2014 began with a challenging afternoon on Merseyside.
Goals either side of half-time from Daniel Agger and Luis Suarez were enough to send the Reds back into the Champions League places on an afternoon when England captain Steven Gerrard, in a World Cup year, made a welcome return after a month out.
By the time Gerrard was brought off the bench just after the hour mark, the game was already up for Hull against a Reds outfit who, after a slow start, had displayed the kind of form that had led to Rodgers’s men sitting atop the Premier League at Christmas.
Back-to-back defeats at title rivals Manchester City and Chelsea had seen Liverpool slip to fifth over the festive season but they showed few ill-effects from that double setback.
Considering the talent in the home ranks, City should not be too downhearted by yesterday’s defeat – especially as opportunities to claim points on the road will soon come due to their next five games on the road all being against clubs currently residing in the bottom six.
Manager Bruce said: “We looked tired and when tiredness creeps in, concentration goes. Your passing also goes and, basically, you haven’t got the energy to compete.
“You have to run a million miles to get something when you are up against it. It was just a bit too much for us.
“Sometimes you just have to say you were beaten by a better team and we were, it was as simple as that.
“Overall the squad and their attitude is great. To have 23 points is a fantastic achievement.
“No disrespect to Incey (Paul Ince) and his mob but 12 months ago on New Year’s Day, we were playing at Blackpool. We have made great strides.”
Ahead of kick-off, Bruce had broken one of the unwritten rules of football. Namely, he changed a winning team.
In came both Alex Bruce and David Meyler from the team that had hammered Fulham 6-0 four days earlier as the City manager reverted to the 3-5-2 formation that had worked so impressively in last month’s stunning win over Liverpool at the KC Stadium.
The intention was to again negate the considerable attacking intent that Rodgers’s men have been showing this term, particularly on home soil where before yesterday’s visit of the Tigers they had netted 25 times in just nine games.
For a time, the ploy worked with it being City who had the game’s first two chances of note.
First, Yannick Sagbo exchanged passes with Robert Koren before firing a shot that flew over the crossbar.
Then, after Tom Huddlestone had dispossessed Luis Suarez in the centre of the field on 15 minutes, Hull broke quickly as Jake Livermore found Koren whose shot was blocked by a Liverpool leg.
After those two early chances, however, it was Liverpool who dominated with Suarez, as to be expected, well to the fore.
The Uruguayan, unusually anonymous at the KC in the Tigers’ 3-1 triumph, curled the hosts’ first effort just wide. He then had the ball in the net after meeting Phillipe Coutinho’s cross with a header only to see the effort ruled out by an offside flag.
Suarez was again involved in the 21st minute move that ended with Allan McGregor saving bravely from Raheem Sterling after the youngster had been released by a deft header from Liverpool’s attacking talisman.
McGregor again had to be on hand to keep out a Sterling header a couple of minutes later before a wonderfully-timed tackle by Meyler denied Coutinho a scoring opportunity after Suarez’s vision had opened up the visitors’ backline.
As the game moved past the half-hour mark, a Liverpool goal was looking more and more likely. The only surprise when it finally arrived on 37 minutes was that Suarez was not directly involved, Coutinho’s corner instead being headed in by Agger.
Bruce, standing on the touchline, was clearly frustrated to concede from a set-piece but, in mitigation for McGregor, the City goalkeeper was left unsighted by Henderson.
The rest of the first half was all about Hull keeping the deficit down to just one goal as Henderson shot wide from the edge of the area and then Coutinho dragged a stoppage time effort wide.
Those two misses were undoubtedly big let-offs for the Tigers. Five minutes after the restart, however, there was to be no such generosity from Suarez, who curled a quite magnificent free-kick beyond McGregor from 20 yards.
Bruce’s response was to make a triple substitution as Matty Fryatt, George Boyd and Danny Graham were all brought off the bench.
It did little, though, to stem the tide as Coutinho fired just over from the edge of the area on 70 minutes.
The Brazilian then brought a save from McGregor with a fierce drive before City enjoyed a bit of late pressure that thanks to some resolute Liverpool defending failed to yield a consolation goal.
Liverpool: Mignolet; Johnson (Toure 55), Agger, Skrtel; Cissokho; Henderson, Lucas; Sterling (Moses 77), Coutinho, Aspas (Gerrard 62); Suarez. Unused substitutes: Jones, Alberto, Kelly, Rossiter.
Hull City: McGregor; Chester, Bruce, Davies; Elmohamady, Meyler (Boyd 58), Huddlestone, Livermore, Figueroa; Koren (Graham 58), Sagbo (Fryatt 58). Unused substitutes: Harper, Rosenior, Faye, Quinn.
Referee: C Pawson (South Yorkshire).