IT WON’T have taken Ellis Short many minutes to realise the fundamental flaw to Sunderland’s hopes of ending their Anfield hoodoo after squeezing into the cramped directors box.
Sunderland couldn’t have had a better opportunity to end a 31-year wait for victory at Liverpool.
Until the second-half introduction of Steven Gerrard, the hosts were, frankly, rotten.
Without wishing to sound like a broken record though, Sunderland’s bid to convert a solitary point into a hugely significant three was scuppered by the absence of those few extra morsels of penetration in the final third.
This is not just a phase Sunderland are going through. A third of their Premier League outings this season have finished goalless.
Excepting the nightmare at Southampton, Sunderland have conceded just 15 goals in 14 games. The problem is they are averaging less than a goal per game at the other end.
After watching stalemates on back-to-back Saturdays in the flesh, Short won’t need any statistics or presentations to grasp that it will be the attacking end of the pitch that both head coach Gus Poyet and sporting director Lee Congerton will want investment to be rubber-stamped in January.
This is not a bad team, nor is it by any means the most perilous situation Sunderland have faced in recent seasons.
Poyet has created a well-drilled, efficient side, who are all on first-name terms with their job specifications.
But spending a couple of quid on a creative midfielder or an addition to the forward line would make all the difference.
Sunderland need a goal talisman because, at the moment, all their heroes are of the unsung variety and they are shining bright.
John O’Shea was once more immense on Saturday and is surely playing the best football of his Sunderland career.
It helped the skipper enormously to have Wes Brown back alongside him after the rusty Sebastian Coates’s mis-match with Sergio Aguero in midweek.
But O’Shea kept Rickie Lambert so efficiently under wraps that Liverpool were never able to establish any attacking foundation to build from.
All Lambert could muster was a wayward header midway through the first half and a couple of knock-downs after the break which Sunderland scrambled away effectively.
Seb Larsson wasn’t far behind O’Shea in the pecking order of Sunderland’s stand-out players.
As with O’Shea, Larsson has previously been a source of criticism on the terraces, but Sunderland fans are now seeing a player who has thrived under Poyet since the dramatic climax to last season.
Larsson understands his central midfield role so much better now and, as a result, he is not having to waste energy charging around aimlessly, which invariably left him knackered after an hour.
The Swedish international is frequently covering more ground than any of his team-mates and, as was the case again on Saturday, opposition midfielders simply aren’t finding the space to operate with such a pest constantly closing them down.
Larsson’s confidence on the ball is improving too. The raking pass over the top which should have seen Connor Wickham awarded an early penalty was a beauty.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether Larsson is working in tandem with Lee Cattermole or Liam Bridcutt either, Sunderland can still boast that solidity in midfield.
Bridcutt’s performance – after Cattermole was understandably given a breather – should give Poyet genuine food for thought.
In his starts against Merseyside pair Everton and Liverpool, Bridcutt has demonstrated that he is up to speed at this level now.
It would be a major surprise if Cattermole remained among the substitutes for the visit of West Ham this Saturday, but Bridcutt is banging on the door loudest among those on the fringes.
If only Sunderland could complement that resilience with a goal or two.
Certainly, Jozy Altidore again didn’t demonstrate that he is the answer after being handed his first Premier League start of the campaign.
Altidore physically tried to put himself about and was clearly desperate to make an impression, but the American’s hold-up play remains his big weakness.
With Wickham spurning Sunderland’s best chance of the second half and Adam Johnson failing to make the most of several promising situations, it was a surprise that Poyet turned to Will Buckley late in the game rather than Steven Fletcher, despite the Scot’s absence from training over the previous 48 hours.
It would have been intriguing to garner the thoughts of Fabio Borini, as he sat in the stands watching the bluntness in attack of his former employers.
Borini was fully fit. For the third game on the spin, Brendan Rodgers simply opted to go without a striker on the bench, rather than include the ex-Sunderland loanee in the 18.
That’s a pretty damning indictment of Borini’s place in the Liverpool pecking order.
For all Borini tried to explain away his decision to reject Sunderland’s summer overtures in the matchday programme beforehand, it remains impossible to escape the conclusion that the 23-year-old has put his career on ice.
Yes, he’s had the odd Champions League outing for Liverpool, including an appearance at the Bernabeu.
But he’s effectively decided on playing a dozen or so games per season – most of which will be as a substitute – rather than being a pivotal figure, who would have continued to be cherished on the terraces.
Surely, someone should have told him that back in July.
There’s no going back now either. For all Poyet likes him, Sunderland have no intention of getting involved in another transfer saga in January after Borini priced himself out a move with his £90,000 a week wage demands during the summer.
What’s more, on this evidence, there is absolutely no chance Liverpool will be back in the Champions League next season unless they win it this time around.
Without the outstanding partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Rodgers’ side is bang average, at least when Gerrard is not involved.
Regular Liverpool observers said Saturday’s performance was pretty typical too.
That was why Sunderland’s players were content, rather than overjoyed, with a solitary point afterwards.
This was a chance missed.
The tally of draws – now standing at nine from 15 games – must be equally frustrating for them, as it is for supporters.
Sunderland are so close to getting the victories which would propel them further away from the bottom three and give everyone that rare feeling of being able to relax and enjoy a season.
But, to bridge that gap, Sunderland require that player or two to get them over the winning line.
LIVERPOOL: Mignolet, Johnson, Moreno, Toure, Skrtel, Lucas, Henderson, Coutinho (Markovic 78), Sterling, Lallana (Gerrard 67), Lambert. Subs not used: Jones, Enrique, Lovren, Can, Allen. Booked: Lucas (51)
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Vergini, O’Shea, Brown, Reveillere, Bridcutt, Larsson (Cattermole 70), Gomez, Johnson (Buckley 79), Wickham, Altidore (Alvarez 70). Subs not used: Rodwell, Fletcher, T Robson, Mannone. Booked: Vergini (41), Bridcutt (60), Buckley (80)
Attendance: 44,716. Ref: Neil Swarbrick
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