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Match analysis: Liverpool 2 Sunderland 1
Full-time: Liverpool 2 Sunderland 1
SUNDERLAND silenced one half of Liverpool's SAS strikeforce and threatened to come up with a rescue service of their own at Anfield.
After restricting the Premier League title contenders to two goals in the opening 70 minutes, Gustavo Poyet's strugglers found their feet and almost delivered an unlikely point.
ARM IN ARM: Lee Cattermole keeps Phillipe Couinho pegged back
While Luis Suarez was unable to add to his 28 goals for the season, his side-kick Daniel Sturridge grabbed his 20th shortly after half-time to take the partnership's goals to 48 goals in 31 matches.
That meant Sunderland had fallen two behind because of Steven Gerrard's brilliant first half free-kick and at the stage there looked to be no way back for a team deep in relegation trouble.
But a double substitution from Poyet, which saw Adam Johnson and Ki Sung-Yueng come on for the final half hour, sparked Sunderland in to life as an attacking force.
It was Ki, heading in Johnson's corner 14 minutes from time, which raised hope of an unexpected comeback and skipper John O'Shea had an incredible chance to level in the closing stages.
The leveller never materialised, though, and while Liverpool closed the gap to leaders Chelsea to a single point with a seventh straight win, Sunderland's threat of Championship football remains severe.
Sunderland, who could have been reduced to ten men had referee Kevin Friend correctly sent off Santiago Vergini on one of two first half occasions, must now try to come end a run of five without a win against West Ham United at the Stadium of Light on Monday.
A failure to do so will only heighten the chances of dropping in to the Football League, although at least they should take some confidence from their second half display against a free-flowing Liverpool.
Attempting to stifle the threat of Suarez and Sturridge was a daunting enough prospect for a side without a win since February 1, so the decision was made to firm up numbers at the back.
Despite asking Connor Wickham, only recalled from a loan at Leeds on Monday, to partner misfiring Jozy Altidore in attack, Poyet packed the Sunderland half of the pitch.
For the first time the Uruguayan named three centre-backs, with O'Shea flanked by Wes Brown to his left and Vergini to his right. The idea was that Suarez – who boasts a goal more than Sunderland's entire team this season - and Sturridge would be outnumbered.
And, occasionally, Phil Bardsley and Andrea Dossena, included for the suspended Marcos Alonso, provided counter-attacks as wing-backs knowing Liverpool did not play with recognised wide-men.
Predominantly, despite looking to break when they could, Bardsley and Dossena were tasked with preventing overlapping runs from red shirts, even if it took a while for goalkeeper Vito Mannone to be tested.
The nearest Suarez, Liverpool for that matter, came to an early breakthrough was a free-kick from the South American which curled a yard over following a shove from O'Shea on Sturridge on the edge of the area.
Liam Bridcutt and Lee Cattermole, the men forming a new-look pairing in front of the back five, put the work in to track the roaming Philippe Coutinho. Joe Allen, though, did find space once to fire over from 18 yards after a decent charge in to the Sunderland half.
While the manner of Sunderland's defensive work was encouraging, Liverpool did control things. It was just the lack of threat posed to the Sunderland goal which was surprising before the opener.
FELLED: Luis Suarez is brought down by Santiago Vergini, on a night to forget for the defender, who was given the run around
But when Vergini was lucky to only be cautioned when he brought down Suarez on the edge of the Sunderland box seven minutes before half-time, Liverpool made them pay.
The defender should have been red carded as the last defender, but Gerrard's quality from the dead ball did the damage. He took a couple of steps before side-footing a brilliant free-kick in to Mannone's top left corner.
Sunderland's reaction was to almost grab an immediate equaliser. Wickham, afforded the space in the final third, turned one way and then the other before forcing former Sunderland No 1 Simon Mignolet in to his first stop low to his right.
Vergini, struggling throughout to come to terms with the Liverpool advances, had another lucky escape seconds before the half-time whistle. When Suarez's trickery caused concern down the left, the Argentina defender committed a cynical foul yet did not receive a second yellow.
There could have been no arguments had he been sent off, yet he was not substituted at the break despite the poor manner of his first half performance.
Referee Friend, whose last Sunderland game was when he got the sending off of Brown horribly wrong at Stoke City, then somehow missed a blatant trip from Cattermole as Suarez burst through.
But seconds before that Liverpool had already extended their advantage. Henderson, the Wearsider who was at Wembley as a Sunderland fan at the start of the month, rolled to Sturridge.
The former Chelsea man took a touch before his left-foot curled shot deflected off Dossena before nestling beyond Mannone's outstretched right hand. Poyet, who sat writing notes in the hope of coming up with a way of fighting back, seemed to have no answer to the Coutinho, Sturridge and Suarez triumvirate which found space everywhere.
But the introductions of Johnson and Ki helped, with that sparking a few more attacks in to the Liverpool box, and Cattermole came close to pulling one back.
After Bardsley's deep cross was volleyed back to the edge of the area by Johnson, Cattermole's first time drive crashed off the underside of the bar and was cleared to safety.
Sturridge did exactly the same at the other end in front of the Kop, but it was Sunderland who did most of the threatening in the final quarter of an hour.
TWO-NIL: Wes Brown deflects Daniel Sturridge’s shot high over keeper Vito Mannone and into the net, to make it Liverpool 2 Sunderland 0 at Anfield
They got their reward too, when Ki worked his way in to space and away from Jon Flanagan to nod in Johnson's corner at the back post.
Sunderland would have had an equaliser in the dying stages had O'Shea got more on Johnson free-kick from the left. Instead the Irishman's glancing header trickled wide when he had been allowed to jump freely in the Liverpool box.
A defeat does nothing for Sunderland's survival chances, but there were signs of positivity after a worrying run of results.