AN inflatable beachball with a Liverpool badge proved the difference between Sunderland and their Champions League chasing counterparts at the Stadium of Light this afternoon.
With less than five minutes gone, Darren Bent, the £10m striker, watched his low drive from 12 yards wrong-foot Pepe Reina, the Liverpool goalkeeper, after hitting the giant ball that had been punched into the visitors penalty area.
It was a freak goal that piled the pressure on Reds boss Rafael Benitez, who felt that referee Mike Jones should have disallowed the goal.
The fact is that it counted, Sunderland took the lead, held on for the remaining 85 minutes, plus an extra seven at the end, and Benitez was condemned to a fourth Premier League defeat from nine games.
Liverpool have now been overtaken in the standings by Sunderland and Benitez must have feared the worst before the match had even started with Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard absent through injury.
The Sunderland midfield axis of Lee Cattermole and Lorik Cana dominated a Liverpool team pinning their hopes on the frustrating Brazilian Lucas and Premier League rookie Jay Spearing.
And it was Cattermoles desire from the middle that led to the goal, even if there are major doubts around whether it should have stood, when he ran through and fed Andy Reid down the right.
Reid rounded Fabio Aurelio, the South American full-back playing further forward, before finding Bent unmarked at the back post. The former Tottenham striker struck low towards Reinas hands before ricocheting off the Liverpool beach-ball and nestling in the net to the right of the Spanish keeper.
Liverpool did have their moments going forward, but in the absence of their two primary goalscorers, their attacking trio of Ryan Babel, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun failed to deliver.
And Bent could have added to the lead. In the first half he headed a cross from Phil Bardsley wide and then after the restart he rounded Reina on two separate occasions. Firstly the goalkeeper somehow got back to thwart and secondly Sunderland were denied by the woodwork.
Sunderland, who have won five home matches in a row under the guidance of Steve Bruce, can now seriously start to think about challenging for a European place.