LUIS SUAREZ’S double condemned Sunderland to a second successive defeat as Liverpool inflicted the joint heaviest loss of the season on the Black Cats.
Poor finishing and poor defending during a pivotal opening 45 minutes cost Martin O’Neill’s men, as Sunderland missed the chance to extend the four-point gap with the relegation zone.
Raheem Sterling handed Liverpool the lead when he raced onto Suarez’s clever hook over the top of the Sunderland back four.
James McClean should have immediately equalised, but dragged his shot wide and Liverpool punished the visitors when Suarez shook off the attempted challenge of Carlos Cuellar before sliding the ball past Simon Mignolet.
Again, Sunderland had a golden opportunity to get on the scoresheet, with Matt Kilgallon seeing his shot saved by Pepe Reina seven minutes before the interval.
But the second half was a procession for Liverpool, who extended their advantage through Suarez and spurned several opportunities to increase the margin of victory.
Danny Rose returned to the Sunderland starting line-up after the on-loan Spurs left-back was ineligible to face his parent club last weekend.
Rose took John O’Shea’s place in the only change by Martin O’Neill, with Matt Kilgallon moving to the centre of defence to partner Carlos Cuellar.
Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers made two changes to the side with Lucas coming in for Joe Allen, who was relegated to the bench, while Andre Wisdom took the place of the injured Jose Enrique.
Former Sunderland academy product Jordan Henderson started in midfield for the Merseysiders.
Wisdom produced the first meaningful effort on goal in the eighth minute when Steven Gerrard knocked it square to the right-back who unleashed a drive from 20 yards that was always rising and cleared the bar by a couple of feet.
Stewart Downing produced better in the 12th minute after Luis Suarez theatrically plunged to the floor under pressure from Kilgallon just outside the area.
Downing curled a left-footed free-kick towards the near post, which Simon Mignolet was required to push behind for a corner with a full-length save.
But with Anfield barely producing a murmur, Liverpool broke the deadlock out of nothing in the 19th minute after a piece of class from Suarez.
Mignolet’s goal-kick was met by the head of Gerrard and into the path of Suarez, with his back to goal on halfway.
Suarez managed to chest the ball down and then hook it over the top of the Liverpool defence for Raheem Sterling to race onto.
Mignolet initially hesitated and when he did race out of his goal, Sterling’s mind was made up and he lifted it over the Belgian into the empty net.
But Sunderland should have registered an instant equaliser after James McClean played a one-two with Steven Fletcher and received a perfectly-weighted return pass to give him a clear sight of goal six yards out.
The ball fell on McClean’s stronger left foot, but the Ireland international somehow managed to hook his effort a yard wide of the far post.
Liverpool made the Black Cats pay with a second in the 26th minute.
Kilgallon didn’t get enough on his clearing header on halfway and Gerrard played a first-time cushioned volley into the path of Suarez on the right flank.
Cuellar couldn’t prevent Suarez going past him and the linesman raised his flag for a foul by the Spaniard.
But referee Phil Dowd played the advantage and Suarez burst into the box on the diagonal before sliding it coolly beyond Mignolet.
It could have been three moments later when Henderson curled in a vicious cross from the right which the sliding Downing couldn’t quite get enough to and his effort bobbled a couple yards wide of the post.
Sunderland should have made more of Liverpool’s failure to clear a corner on the half-hour mark, but their only end product was a tame shot from Seb Larsson straight at Pepe Reina from 12 yards out.
Another set-piece almost provided a way back into the game for the Black Cats five minutes later.
Larsson’s free-kick from 25 yards was blocked by the wall but Adam Johnson looped it back into the area where Kilgallon had escaped in behind the Liverpool back-line.
Kilgallon met the floated cross with a well-struck half-volley which Reina managed to block before he managed to gather the loose ball just ahead of the onrushing Fletcher.
Liverpool continued to look a threat on the counter-attack though, Suarez spinning away from Kilgallon in the 38th minute and bursting forward and squaring to Downing, via Henderson, on the edge of the Sunderland area.
Downing unleashed an angled left-footed drive which deflected off Craig Gardner, just beyond the far post.
HALF-TIME Liverpool 2 Sunderland 0
O’Neill made a change at the interval with Fraizer Campbell replacing Stephane Sessegnon, who got a knock in the closing stages of the first half.
Liverpool had a clearcut chance within five minutes of the re-start when Suarez cushioned a sublime first-time volley into the path of Sterling, which put the winger in behind the Black Cats defence.
But with Mignolet rushing out of his goal, Sterling’s attempted dink past the keeper from the right of the area lacked any pace and screwed harmlessly across the face.
The reprieve was only temporary as Liverpool added a third in the 52nd minute.
From midway his own half, Gerrard lifted a raking long ball over the top which bisected Gardner and Cuellar and put Suarez in on goal.
The Uruguayan took a couple of touches to control before dinking it effortlessly past Mignolet.
The Sunderland stopper did deny Glen Johnson in the 66th minute after Gerrard met Downing’s cross from the left with a stabbed half-volley into the turf.
The ball was heading well wide, but Johnson managed to re-direct it on target, only for Mignolet to tip over the top.
Kilgallon’s blushes were spared in the 72nd minute when the former Leeds defender failed to get enough on his attempted clearance to Downing’s left-wing cross.
The ball rebounded off Suarez and into the path of Allen, 12 yards out, but his shot was blocked brilliantly by a sliding challenge from Rose.
Johnson then whistled a free-kick into the side netting from the left flank with 10 minutes to go after unexpectedly opting to shoot.
The England full-back then almost set up a fourth with five minutes to go when his cross from the left-hand by-line picked out Allen at the near post, but he could only fire into the side netting.
FULL-TIME Liverpool 3 Sunderland 0
LIVERPOOL: Reina, Wisdom, Skrtel (Carragher 74), Agger, Johnson, Lucas, Henderson (Suso 67), Gerrard, Downing, Sterling (Allen 57), Suarez. Subs not used: Jones, Sahin, Shelvey, Robinson.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Gardner, Cuellar, Kilgallon, Rose (Vaughan 73), Johnson, Larsson (McFadden 62), Colback, McClean, Sessegnon (Campbell 46), Fletcher. Subs not used: Westwood, Bardsley, Wickham, Bramble. Booked: McClean (60)