Three straight defeats and another title challenge in tatters. It did not help the despondent mood in the Liverpool camp that this loss came down to an incident tinged with comedy.
Darren Bent’s winner hit a beach ball as it went into the net, leaving Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina baffled, then furious.
As it turned out, an obscure rule states that play should have been restarted with a dropped ball. Life’s a beach. At least Steve Bruce didn’t give it the man of the match award.
“Did any of you know that rule?” Bruce asked to general press box bemusement. “If you know that rule, that it had to be a dropped ball, you have to be one saddo. They got the guy on telly who threw it on. It’s got Liverpool crests all over it. What a shame.”
Sunderland might have got lucky with the goal but their performance was deserving of victory. The only downside were the worrying injuries sustained by Lee Cattermole (twisted knee) and Kenwyne Jones (ankle). “That’s like losing our Gerrard and Torres,” Bruce said.
Benítez came into this game swamped by injury problems of his own. Not only had Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres picked up injuries on national duty, but Javier Mascherano and Emiliano Insua were so late back from helping Argentina qualify for the World Cup that they went straight to the team hotel in Sunderland on landing and were only ready for the bench.
That meant Benítez sent out a strange starting line-up. With all three centre-halves on the field - Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel - it wasn’t initially clear what Liverpool’s formation was - not least to the players themselves. Jay Spearing, at 20, came into central midfield for his first Premier League start while Dirk Kuyt played on his own up front. It looked like a scratch side and, for most of this game, played like one.
If Benítez thought the injuries, travel delays and jet lag that had weakened his squad was the end of his bad luck he was mistaken. In the fifth minute Sunderland took the lead with an inflatable assist. Cattermole came charging forward with the ball on the counter-attack and worked it out to Andy Reid on the right.
The Irishman crossed and it was flicked to the far post by Steed Malbranque. Bent was there, in plenty of space, and struck the ball cleanly. However, it struck a red beach ball thrown on from the away end, wrong-footing Reina before nestling into the back of the net.
The keeper had been further confused by Glen Johnson accidentally booting the beach ball as he tried to block Bent’s shot. Reina and Johnson protested volubly to the referee and his assistant referee, to no avail.
Having taken that - admittedly fortunate - lead, Bruce’s team never looked back, led to victory by their inspiring captain, Lorik Cana, who played the first half in central midfield and the second at centre-back. The hard-tackling Albanian must surely be one of the most astute signings of the summer.
“On days like this you don’t want to single out individual players,” Bruce said, “but with that I’ve witnessed one of the exceptional performances from a centre-back. And I’ve seen some good ones.”
The in-form Bent had four good chances to kill the game, two in the first half, two in the second, but couldn’t quite capitalise on them. When Reid floated a cross to the far post on 22 minutes, Bent could not get enough power on his header while, 15 minutes later, the man desperate to force his way into Fabio Capello’s World Cup squad could only glance Phil Bardsley
’s cross wide, with Reina stranded.
After the break, Bent hit the outside of the post after rounding Reina and then was denied by the goalkeeper after appearing to have wriggled round him after Jones had played a clever through ball. The pressure was getting to Bruce and he had a touchline bust-up with Benítez when the Spanish manager asked for the clock to be stopped when Jones was injured. “It was on the spur of the moment and I think I made a prat of myself,” Bruce said.
Liverpool struggled to make more than half-chances but as the game drew out, Sunderland grew nervous. To the home support’s horror, the fourth official held up a Fergie-esque seven minutes of stoppage time. A supporter who had been lovingly preparing a celebratory cigar pulverised it in frustration. He shouldn’t have been so rash. For Sunderland, this was a victory to savour.