Liverpool's hopes of hosting Europa League football next season remain slim but, as long as Luis Suárez continues playing as cleverly as this, Tottenham Hotspur will not be able to sit comfortably in fifth place.
Involved in most of Liverpool's threatening moves, Suárez scored an audacious second‑half goal to ensure that the increasingly unlamented Fernando Torres is a fast-fading memory on Merseyside.
The same could be said of Sunderland's European ambitions. Their last win came at Blackpool on 22 January – six games, one point and two morale‑crushing months ago – and here Steve Bruce's side failed to force Pepe Reina into a single save until the Spaniard stopped Lee Cattermole's 86th‑minute shot.
Despite menacing flashes of incisive intelligence from Suárez – and, yes, Uruguay's "hand of God" World Cup striker did have his hand shaken by Sunderland's Ghana international Asamoah Gyan before kick-off – allied with considerable industry on Dirk Kuyt's part, Liverpool were initially not much better.
Yet if the brand new attacking partnership between Suárez – whose touch, balance and elusive movement are a joy – and the largely disappointing, quite possibly half-fit, Andy Carroll remains very much a work in progress, Kenny Dalglish's side were ahead by the break. It was a controversial opener, John Mensah's foul on Jay Spearing earning Liverpool a disputed penalty.
Although the referee appeared to believe Spearing had been felled outside the box he was, incorrectly, overruled by a linesman. No matter, Kuyt stepped up to send Simon Mignolet the wrong way by directing the ball low into the bottom corner with trademark efficiency. "We've got a fortuitous decision," said Dalglish. "But we deserved to win."
Bruce proved creditably sanguine. "I've got no complaints about the result and I'm not saying it was a defining moment but for someone 40 yards away to overturn the decision of someone standing 10 yards away … surely it is time for technology to be used in these situations," said the Sunderland manager. "The linesman's made a big error."
Bruce, whose side singularly failed to translate early possession into goal threat, gave his defence extra protection by stationing Sulley Muntari in front of that backline but the former Internazionale midfielder struggled horribly before being withdrawn injured and replaced by Cattermole. All too predictably it did not take Cattermole, newly returned from injury, many minutes to collect a booking for a sly, late trip on Suárez.
Early in the second half, though, the Sunderland captain showed off his more productive side, using a thigh to clear Andy Carroll's goalbound header off the line after the heavily booed former Newcastle striker had outjumped Titus Bramble to a Raul Meireles corner. "I didn't realise Andy was so popular here," joked Dalglish.
It represented the highlight of Carroll's afternoon but offered a brief reminder of just why the Liverpool manager invested £35m in the physically imposing centre-forward's raw potential. Liverpool might have extended their lead had Mignolet not done well to tip the much improved, surprisingly influential Spearing's curling, left‑foot shot over the bar but Sunderland's Belgian goalkeeper was soon confounded by Suárez's moment of magic. Scored from about as an acute an angle as you can have – about a yard on to the pitch from the byline – it was a goal Dalglish would have been proud to have registered.
The move began with Kuyt taking a throw and playing a swift short one-two with the Uruguayan before Suárez used his right foot to transport his manager into technical area raptures. Expecting a cross, poor Mignolet, who had earlier impressed to repel a fine volley from the £22.8m striker, simply looked dumbfounded.
Things got worse for Sunderland with Mensah, who was already booked, was shown a straight red card for a "professional" foul – namely a rugby tackle – on Suárez, who was withdrawn in the 89th minute nursing a groin injury.
"It turned into one of them horrible afternoons," said Bruce, who saw his side end the game with several players nursing fresh injuries. "I thought we'd be singing and dancing again but it wasn't our day. The last few weeks have been hugely disappointing."
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