LONDON // Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling ended a difficult week on a high as the teenager inspired his side’s dramatic 3-2 win over QPR in an incredible finish featuring three goals in stoppage-time at Loftus Road on Sunday.
Sterling had endured widespread derision after England manager Roy Hodgson revealed the Reds star had told him he was too tired to play in last weekend’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Estonia.
The 19-year-old’s commitment to his country and passion for the sport were subsequently questioned, but Sterling made a point to the critics as he played the entire 90 minutes at Loftus Road and produced two key contributions to seal the points for Brendan Rodgers’ men.
With Hodgson watching from the stands, Sterling, who began his career as a QPR trainee, won a free-kick which led to Hoops defender Richard Dunne turning into the net for Liverpool’s second half opener.
That set the stage for an astonishing finale as Eduardo Vargas equalised with three minutes left, only for Philippe Coutinho to restore Liverpool’s lead in the 90th minute.
Vargas levelled again in stoppage-time, but Liverpool still emerged with three points thanks to Sterling, whose cross was deflected into his own net by QPR defender Steven Caulker with virtually the last kick of the match.
Not for the first time this season, Liverpool were well below their best for long periods, but somehow they were able to secure a morale-boosting victory ahead of Wednesday’s crunch Champions League clash with Real Madrid.
Leroy Fer should have put the hosts ahead just before the half-hour mark when Bobby Zamora’s cutback picked out the Dutch midfielder in yards of space inside the penalty area, but instead he fired his shot onto the crossbar.
Liverpool’s notoriously creaky defence remained in danger of crumbling and there was another moment of mayhem in the visitors’ area when Martin Skrtel’s poor clearance let in Zamora down the right.
Fer should have punished goalkeeper Simon Mignolet’s failure to collect Zamora’s cross, but his header hit the bar before Sandro’s attempt to force in the rebound was hacked clear by Johnson.
Rodgers’ side were faring no better in front of goal and Mario Balotelli’s lethargic performance was summed up when he somehow blazed over an open goal from close range after Adam Lallana’s shot was pushed into the Italian’s path by QPR goalkeeper Alex McCarthy’s fine save.
Sterling had been the catalyst for that Liverpool break and the teenager played a key role again when the Reds took the lead in the 67th minute.
Battling for possession on the right flank, Sterling won a free-kick which he cleverly took quickly while QPR were still regrouping.
With QPR suddenly exposed, Johnson took Sterling’s pass and whipped over a low cross that Dunne miscued into his own net as he tried to clear.
Balotelli squandered a chance to kill off QPR in the closing minutes and Vargas made him with an 87th minute equaliser as the substitute smashed home after Austin headed a cross back into the danger zone.
After looking lethargic in attack for so long, Liverpool were suddenly provoked into life and Coutinho looked to have won it when he finished a flowing move between Sterling and Steven Gerrard with a fine low strike in the 90th minute.
Yet remarkably there was even more drama to come in stoppage-time as Vargas flicked in a near post header that crept past Mignolet and just over the line.
QPR barely had time to celebrate their apparent escape before Liverpool provided the final twist.
Coutinho’s pass set Sterling away down the left edge of the QPR area and he calmly cut a cross in the direction of Balotelli, only for the ball to hit Caulker and deflect past the wrong-footed McCarthy to spark wild celebrations among Liverpool’s players and travelling supporters.
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