IT’S hard to analyse the value of a game in which Sunderland showed so much more fight than they did at Norwich City four days previously, but still ended up losing just the same.
A defeat is a defeat is a defeat.
And at this stage of the season – with the Black Cats becalmed in the bottom three – the bottom line is all that counts.
The Wearsiders’ last league win was on February 1, when Newcastle were humbled in an unforgettable derby.
But since then they have struggled to convince in the league and Gus Poyet is trying everything to gain some traction.
Against Norwich, he had played the same starting XI that humbled the Magpies and been rewarded with a performance so poor that he was forced to make a double tactical substitution before the break.
At Liverpool last night, he tried something even more radical to find a spark – a 5-2-1-2 formation which incorporated talents as diverse as Connor Wickham and Emanuele Giaccherini; Santiago Vergini and Andrea Dossena.
It was a daring team selection by the Sunderland head coach – showing he wasn’t afraid to experiment and to innovate – and it nearly worked too.
For the second away game in a row, the aim was to try and survive the first 20 minutes without conceding and, despite the occasional hiccup and threat, this time they achieved that quite comfortably.
Poyet made five changes to the side which crumbled against the Canaries – and they were radical ones.
In came Dossena, Vergini, Giaccherini, Wickham and Lee Cattermole; out went Jack Colback, Ki Sung-Yueng, Adam Johnson, the suspended Marcos Alonso and ineligible Fabio Borini.
The plan was to be ultra-defensive, with the defence swelled by Vergini’s inclusion, while, up front, Sunderland would look to hit on the break with a twin strike-force Wickham and Jozy Altidore playing in front of Giaccherini.
It was a decent game plan in the face of an unenviable task, for there was a predictably great atmosphere at a jubilant Anfield in the run-up to kick-off – home fans seeing their team playing on Merseyside for the first time in a month and aiming for a seventh consecutive win.
Sunderland, by contrast, were looking for their first win in six, but the gap in form and class was far from evident in the opening stages.
Poyet’s men produced a solid enough opening five minutes in which the only hint of goal-mouth action was a long-range effort from the lively Philippe Coutinho which sailed harmlessly over.
Referee Kevin Friend has been anything but friendly to Sunderland in recent games and the early indications were that he might prove to be a homer.
In the sixth minute, he allowed Daniel Sturridge to buy a cheap free-kick from John O’Shea on the edge of the Sunderland area and also allowed the home side to make the chance a much better goal-scoring one by allowing Liverpool to place the ball a good four yards away from where the original incident took place.
Thankfully for Sunderland, Luis Suarez curled his first effort of the night wide of the target.
Mercifully for Sunderland, the vast majority of Friend’s decisions after that were to go heavily in their favour.
Liam Bridcutt hoisted his side’s first effort on goal wide from range in the seventh minute, then, in the ninth, Sturridge flashed a rising snapshot over the crossbar as both sides looked to be positive.
Phil Bardsley positioned his body well to fire a dropping ball at a crowded penalty area three minutes later, but the shot was blocked and Liverpool cleared their lines.
The next 10 minutes was attritional stuff, with Sunderland defending solidly – although they squandered possession too easily on the occasions they had it.
Vergini’s indecision in defence might have proved costly in the 23rd minute with a poor pass across his own box and Dossena had to be grateful that his shove on Suarez just outside the Sunderland area went unpunished.
Despite that, the half-hour came up with Sunderland still on level terms and Liverpool unable to muster anything in the preceding minutes other than a long-range and wayward Joe Allen effort.
In the 35th minute, Sunderland had the confidence to commit numbers forward so much that they were caught on the break – Suarez lifting a left-foot shot wide from 20 yards.
The visitors could be happy with their efforts so far.
But the game turned in the home side’s favour when Cattermole was caught in possession in the centre-circle and Suarez was released – O’Shea unable to stop him and Vergini bringing down his fellow South American just outside the area.
It looked likely to be a straight red card, but Friend flourished only a yellow.
The damage for Sunderland, though, was to be done from the resulting 39th-minute free-kick with Steven Gerrard producing a trademark emphatic finish – driving a right-foot effort around the wall and Vito Mannone, diving to his left, unable to do anything other than finger-tip it into the corner of goal.
Sunderland might have lost their discipline in the minutes that followed, with Bardsley booked for a foul on Jon Flanagan a minute later.
But the Wearsiders settled themselves, found a sense of purpose in their play, and Wickham saw a deflected shot narrowly parried by Simon Mignolet as the Black Cats went on to win three corners in quick succession in a strong end to the half.
Once again, though, they had to be grateful for the referee’s forbearance for a second time just before the break when Vergini surged in on Suarez, on the left of the box, took nothing of the ball, and somehow escaped a booking.
Liverpool started the second half well, Suarez firing over within a minute of the restart.
And the hosts doubled their lead in the 48th minute.
Ex-Sunderland midfielder Jordan Henderson found Sturridge on the right of the box and he cut inside, earned himself a yard on Dossena and curled a shot around the left-back which struck Wes Brown and deflected wide of Mannone’s right hand into the net.
Things could have got worse a minute later when Cattermole brought down Suarez from behind as the Uruguayan reached the edge of the Sunderland area, but the referee waved play on.
Sunderland responded as best as they could. Giaccherini threatened to rob possession from Mignolet, while Bardsley forcing his former club-mate into a save with an unconvincing long-range shot.
Suarez then turned out to be Sunderland’s best defender in the 52nd minute when a Sturridge shot hit him on the line.
Sunderland dug in and, just after the hour, Poyet changed things around with the introduction of Johnson and Ki at the expense of Giaccherini and Wickham.
The changes saw the visitors look to maintain an attacking impetus, with Johnson playing high up the field in support of Altidore.
Suarez and Coutinho continued to look dangerous on the counter-attack for Liverpool, but Sunderland were vastly improved by the double substitution and began to pressure the home defence.
The problem for the visitors threatened to be that no-one was prepared to take on the responsibility of going for goal.
At one stage, Sunderland strung together a long succession of passes around the Liverpool box but no-one took the chance to attempt any of the half-chances that opened up and all that possession went begging.
What could be achieved with a bit of ambition was demonstrated in the 70th minute when Cattermole took a chance and his piledriver hit Mignolet’s crossbar before Ki fired the rebound wide.
Instantly though Liverpool showed their own threat with a Sturridge shot against Mannone’s bar.
And intermittently, in the last half-hour, Liverpool threatened to put the game beyond doubt with some wonderful passing and approach play.
But Sunderland were still trying to get to get back into it and a Bardsley piledriver was blocked and Ki’s follow-up earned his side a corner.
From the 76th-minute flag-kick, the Black Cats stunned Anfield into silence by having the temerity to pull a goal back.
Johnson delivered from the right, the ball bounced all the way through the box, and the unmarked Ki was there to head home on the edge of the six-yard box.
It should have been twitchier for the home side than it proved – Liverpool didn’t exactly look scared.
Instead they continued to play confidently, passing the ball around well and benefiting from the arrival of the pacy Raheem Sterling in place of Sturridge.
Suarez struck a powerful free-kick inches over Mannone’s bar in the 80th minute, after Bridcutt had been harshly booked for a challenge.
But Sunderland continued to stay in the game and threatened to finish it strongly.
In the 87th minute, substitute Jack Colback was shoved to the ground just outside the box on the left of the Liverpool box and Sunderland’s chance had arrived.
Johnson chipped the ball across the box and O’Shea got a free header six yards out, but he could only glance it across the face of goal.
On such things do points hang – on such things might titles and relegations hang.
Still, Poyet’s gameplan and his players’ application of it had taken them to the brink of a surprise point.
Now they have to take that form into the crucial game against West Ham on Monday.
If they do, they have every chance of pulling off a victory which would be huge in the context off the Premier League relegation battle.
Poyet’s problem, though, is Sunderland’s consistent inconsistency and the knowledge that past performance is simply no guarantee of future success.