SUNDERLAND got a reality check for their ambitions as champions Liverpool shrugged off the Roker Park snow to cruise to a commanding victory.
The Red and Whites had begun their first season back in Division One in fine fettle, but a 4-2 defeat to Liverpool sent them spiralling down the table to 16th place, just five points above the drop zone.
Boss Ken Knighton, failing to end Sunderland’s 20-year hoodoo against the Anfield men, said: “They proved to us just how far we have to go before we can even think of Sunderland in the same breath as Liverpool.
“I have been trying to strengthen the squad all season, but we will have to make the present squad better than it is.
“There is a lot of hard work to be done here and as long as I am manager of Sunderland Football Club, I will be setting my targets high to make this club as great as Liverpool.
“Obviously it is going to take longer if we have to bring our own youngsters through.
“The Liverpool squad has been together for a lot of years and they are probably the best team in the country at the moment.”
Sunderland missed Jeff Clarke, Joe Hinnigan, Mick Buckley and Barry Dunn, but even a fully fit squad would have struggled against imperious Liverpool.
The visitors, embarrassed by a 4-1 midweek trouncing at Wolves, were in complete control from the off against Sunderland, who only managed a couple of late consolations when Bob Paisley’s men eased up, with the game well won.
Liverpool needed just 13 minutes to make the breakthrough when Rob Hindmarch headed clear a Phil Neal cross, but only as far as striker David Johnson, who drove a 12-yard shot past the helpless Chris Turner.
It was 2-0 on 35 minutes with a fantastic goal. Johnson left Alan Brown and Steve Whitworth trailing in his wake as he burst down the Liverpool left. He played the ball in for Kenny Dalglish, who cleverly flicked the ball on for Terry McDermott, whose low, left-foot shot flashed past Turner’s dive on its way into the corner.
Liverpool looked like scoring in every attack, and Turner did well to dive bravely at the feet of Johnson.
Sunderland almost got a lucky break early in the second half when Alan Kennedy sliced his clearance for Liverpool and visiting keeper Ray Clemence had to react quickly to save at the feet of Stan Cummins.
Sunderland went close again when sub Gordon Chisholm flicked on for Brown, but defender Colin Irwin stepped in to halt him, conceding a corner.
Liverpool responded when McDermott flashed a free-kick across goal, then Johnson, set free by Graeme Souness’s first-time clearance, unleashed a powerful drive which hit the side netting.
Liverpool finally made the game safe with a third goal on 81 minutes.
Souness flicked the ball into the path of fellow midfielder Sammy Lee, who beat Turner with a scorching shot just inside the upright.
The Reds had two further attempts charged down before they made it 4-0 with six minutes to go, thanks to another expertly-worked strike, with Lee taking a pass from Dalglish in his stride before creating space to fire a tremendous shot past the helpless Turner.
Sunderland had the last word, netting twice in a minute, even though the points were long since heading to Anfield.
In the 86th minute, Brown slotted into an empty net after a determined Cummins dispossessed keeper Clemence, then Cummins cut the deficit to two goals when he was sent clear to round the England goalie.
Incredibly, Liverpool needed an outstanding save from Clemence, keeping out a fierce effort from Shaun Elliott, to deny Sunderland a late third.