Rarely this term has the fourth official raising his electronic board been greeted by nervous glances. On their own patch, Brendan Rogers’ title-chasing Liverpool tend to have the cigars out long before full time.
After showing little or no ambition, the Black Cats managed the not inconsiderable feat of making their hosts sweat over a victory the bookmakers saw as little more than a formality.
It was a nice feeling for a team at the wrong end of the table, but ultimately it did them no real good.
One of their games in hand has been crossed off and Sunderland now know they must win the other to lift themselves out of the Premier League’s relegation zone.
Such is the panic Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge spread among opponents, Gustavo Poyet changed from his normal approach to pick a very different-looking team – or rather two teams.
The back three of Santiago Vergini, John O’Shea and Wes Brown were given added protection by four more players while Emanuele Giaccherini, Jozy Altidore and Connor Wickham – back from his loan at Leeds United – were left to fend for themselves.
While the defensive team denied Liverpool any space to operate in, their wastefulness in possession meant the front three saw little of the ball.
For 38 minutes it worked pretty well, Liverpool restricted only to long-range shots. Vito Mannone in particular tested the supporters’ patience by stretching the definition of the word ponderous to new levels whenever Sunderland had to bring the ball back into play.
Philippe Coutinho, Suarez and Sturridge all tried their luck from distance in the first 10 minutes without hitting the target. Joe Allen also missed the target from the edge of the area in the opening half-hour.
Still new to the Premier League, Argentinian Vergini looked nervous from the start, his first-minute touch giving Mannone a few minor palpitations before he got the ball clear.
Liverpool’s best route to goal looks like the quick breakaway and when the recalled Andrea Dossena conceded possession 10 minutes before half-time, Suarez broke from just inside Sunderland’s half to the edge of the area. But in cutting in on his left foot he hit traffic and was not able to curl his shot around it.
The goal was coming, though, and Vergini was ultimately to blame.
Suarez threatened to break away a second time when he pounced on the defender’s poor touch and in his desperation Vergini lunged in from behind.
It was a most blatant professional foul but, having wrongly sent off Brown at Stoke City earlier in the season, Kevin Friend seemed in no mood to make the same mistake again. The yellow card would not be his last act of generosity to the visitors.
Instead it was left to Steven Gerrard to dish out the punishment, curling a free-kick over the wall to put his side in front.
Half-time offered the opportunity for a quick rethink, but Poyet seemed to decide the best option was to hope they could keep Liverpool at arm’s length, rather than leave gaps chasing an equaliser too early in the game. The problem was, it needed Sunderland to keep their rampant hosts at bay for at least another half-hour. They could not manage five minutes.
When Jordan Henderson played the ball to Sturridge, Dossena backed off enough to allow the England striker into the area to curl in a second goal. The roof might have fallen in seconds later, but for another act of Friendliness.
Lee Cattermole appeared to clip Suarez’s heels in the D but the Uruguayan’s amateur dramatics have made a rod for his own back, and the referee did not trust that sufficient contact had been made. The Kop was unsurprisingly livid. It was not just the referee coming to Sunderland’s rescue – even Suarez did. His telepathic partnership with Sturridge is the stuff of legend but it did not stop him running across the path of his colleagues shot. From such close range, even the Premier League’s best striker was unable to force the ball beyond Mannone.
When the changes finally came they were in personnel and attitude, but not in shape. Ki Sung-Yueng and Adam Johnson took up the roles of Giaccherini and Wickham but the intent to attack was suddenly present, as it seemed to wane ever so slightly from a Liverpool side who must surely have been confident of victory.
The changes highlighted two themes of Sunderland’s season – that Poyet is very good at substitutions, and that his team are better at chasing lost causes than making the most of realistic opportunities.
Johnson kept them on Liverpool toes with a dipping shot which went wide, then played Phil Bardsley’s cross into the path of Cattermole. The Teessider thundered a half-volley on to the bar. Sturridge responded in kind five minutes later, curling against the woodwork.
The biggest threat to a first Liverpool title since 1990 is their soft underbelly, and Sunderland exposed it with 13 minutes left.
Their defenders stood statuesque as Johnson’s corner passed through to the back post, where Ki launched a diving header into the net.
Anfield was audibly – or rather inaudibly – stunned, while for the first time in weeks Sunderland dared to dream.
They ought to have equalised.
There was only a minute of normal time left when Glen Johnson’s foul presented namesake Johnson with a crossing opportunity near the byline. He picked out an unmarked O’Shea, but the defender could only glance his header wide of the net.
The desperation with which the Kop roared its team to see out the game was very clear, but it was quickly followed by chants of “We’re gonna win the league” on the full-time whistle.
In truth this performance told us very little about what the coming weeks hold for Sunderland.