LONDON • Juergen Klopp refused to rule out Liverpool as Premier League title contenders on Wednesday, after ending the year level on points with Manchester United and just nine points behind leaders Arsenal.
"I don't know," the German manager told Sky Sports television after the Reds, captured their 18th and last top-flight title in 1990, won 1-0 at struggling Sunderland.
"You can see we have both 30 points. I think in this moment Liverpool feels not too bad and in Man United the atmosphere is not the best.
"We wanted at least 30 points, we got them. Perfect.
"This is not the best we can do, we know this, but we had to fight. We knew about Sunderland's situation."
IN A GOOD PLACE
You can see we have both 30 points. I think in this moment Liverpool feels not too bad and in Man United the atmosphere is not the best. We wanted at least 30 points, we got them. Perfect. This is not the best we can do, we know this, but we had to fight.
United have been seen as contenders for much of the season despite lacklustre performances but the heat is on manager Louis van Gaal, whose side have gone eight games without a win.
Klopp, now with 11 league matches under his belt since arriving at Liverpool to replace the sacked Brendan Rodgers, said things were going in the right direction for the Merseysiders, who are five points off the Champions League spots.
"I can do better, but of course I did sometimes worse in my life so everything's OK," said the German, who spoke to the players at half-time about the need to press more.
Adam Lallana, who provided the final touch for Christian Benteke to score 22 seconds into the second half, hinted that the Reds will scrap for points if they have to, particularly on the road.
They showed as much at Sunderland where quality football was at a premium, obeying the pragmatic instructions of Klopp.
And the visitors were rewarded with an element of good fortune in the winner.
"The manager has tried to drum into us that sometimes we've got to be dirtier, fight a bit more and play teams at their own game," said Lallana, who diverted Nathaniel Clyne's pass towards Benteke early in the second half.
"I don't think I meant the flick to go directly into Christian's path but sometimes you need the rub of the green, especially at tough places like this."
Still, the Reds striker took his chance coolly, timing his run to beat Sebastian Coates and Wes Brown and stroke the ball past Vito Mannone.
As Lallana leapt on Benteke's back in celebration, the Belgian thumped his chest and club crest.
Nevertheless, that the margin of victory for Liverpool was just a single goal was due to some profligacy in front of goal.
Twice in the final moments Liverpool missed clear chances, with Benteke and Jordon Ibe the guilty parties.
How Benteke fits into Liverpool's style has been a long and occasionally loud debate at the club this season.
The discussion revolves around how a large, muscular forward fits into Liverpool's fluid system.
He is a forward who traditionally thrives on crosses, and Liverpool's nominal wide players on Wednesday, Philippe Coutinho and Lallana, kept coming inside.
Much of the width is provided by the full-backs, Alberto Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne, when going wide.
But Benteke's two decisive goals over the holiday period - against Leicester City on Boxing Day, and against Sunderland, has softened the criticism.
He now has six goals in 16 league appearances for Liverpool since his £32.5 million (S$68.1 million) move from Aston Villa - including three winners - and is the club's top scorer this term.
As Benteke adapts to his new role while forwards Daniel Sturridge, Danny Ings and Divock Origi are sidelined, Klopp insists that there is more to come from the burly Belgian.
"A striker who scores a decisive goal is always a positive thing, but I'm sure Christian knows he can play better," he said.
"But at this moment, we need goals more than anything else and he did it again, so we are really satisfied."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE TIMES, LONDON