Rampant Liverpool closes on Premier League title
LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — What was looking like a gripping finale to the Premier League title race is starting to turn into a procession for Liverpool.
The rampant leaders moved five points clear of Chelsea with three matches remaining thanks to a 3-2 victory over Norwich on Sunday, taking their winning run to 11 games.
The win, sealed by two goals from the excellent Raheem Sterling and a 30th of the campaign from Luis Suarez, secured Champions League football for Liverpool for the first time since the 2009-10 season. But the Reds will have loftier ambitions than that as they seek a first English championship in 24 years.
“At the start of the season, everyone thought it would be a struggle for us to get to fourth, so it shows the magnitude of the effort the players have put in,” said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, whose side plays Chelsea at home next Sunday.
“We have cemented the first objective, which was cementing Champions League qualification. Now we will look forward to next weekend.”
It is promising to be a tighter race for the final Champions League spot, with fourth-place Arsenal and Everton both winning to leave them separated by just one point.
Lukas Podolski scored twice for the second straight game in Arsenal’s 3-0 victory at Hull and Everton overwhelmed Manchester United in a 2-0 win that marked another dark day for United manager David Moyes, who endured a miserable return to the club he coached for 11 years.
United can’t now qualify for the Champions League — the first time it will miss the competition in 19 years — and even reaching the Europa League is a real doubt, with a top-six finish likely to be needed for that. United is seventh, six points behind Tottenham with a game in hand.
“I couldn’t fault how we played,” Moyes said, “because we kept the ball incredibly well.”
Leighton Baines, from the penalty spot, and Kevin Mirallas scored Everton’s goals in its third game in eight days to seal a first league double over United in 44 years. United looked sluggish, despite not having played in 11 days since bowing out of the Champions League at Bayern Munich.
Aaron Ramsey grabbed Arsenal’s other goal at KC Stadium in what was a rehearsal for next month’s FA Cup final against Hull.
“We have had to cope with five or six players all out at the same time and we have done as well as we can,” said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose team looked a different proposition going forward with fit-again pair Ramsey and Mesut Ozil back in the team.
“We were having problems scoring goals away from home and (Ramsey) and Ozil give us a cutting edge in the final third that makes us much more dangerous.”
Liverpool is now 23 points ahead of great rival United — an amazing turnaround from last season when Liverpool placed seventh — and a victory over Chelsea will surely see the championship trophy return to Anfield.
Sterling crashed home a brilliant long-range strike in the fourth minute before setting up Suarez in the 11th minute for his 12th goal against Norwich in their last five meetings. The Uruguay striker is the first Liverpool player since Ian Rush in the 1986-87 season to net 30 goals in one league campaign.
After Gary Hooper cut the deficit in the 54th, Sterling re-established Liverpool’s two-goal lead with his second that saw him intercept a pass inside his own half, weave his way through Norwich’s defense before taking aim with a shot that looped over goalkeeper John Ruddy thanks to a deflection.
Robert Snodgrass’ 77th-minute header set up a nervy finish but Liverpool held on to put clear distance to Chelsea, which lost 2-1 to Sunderland on Saturday.
Manchester City is third, nine points behind Liverpool with two games in hand.
Rodgers said he had used the words of Margaret Aspinall, the mother of one of the 96 victims in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, as inspiration before the Norwich game.
“We put them up on the wall (in the dressing room),” Rodgers said. “This is all one club at this moment in time and we are all fighting to achieve the ultimate goal.”