THIS game could have been a landmark one for Sunderland, an early-season statement of intent – had the Black Cats’ best player not been his side’s least impressive performer on the day.
For the third game in a row, Stephane Sessegnon was strangely out of sorts, more perhaps than the previous two games combined – a man off, despite his manful efforts to get into the game.
And without the Player of the Season’s special brand of genius, Sunderland failed to fully test a Liverpool side stretched by the emotional fall-out of the Hillsborough verdict and a rocky start to Brendan Rodgers’ managerial reign.
Martin O’Neill has worked hard to improve the quality of Sunderland’s squad this summer, but, with Adam Johnson sidelined, the Wearsiders had the look of the side which won only one of its final 12 games last season.
Steven Fletcher, Carlos Cuellar and on-loan left-back Danny Rose all made their home league debuts, but with Fletcher and Rose not 100 per cent fit and Cuellar making an error which could have cost the Black Cats early on, this was not quite the improved side we can expect later this season.
Recent years have seen Sunderland improve their record against the once all-conquering Reds and many in Saturday’s 40,000-plus crowd at the Stadium of Light arrived hoping for an upset.
It was a hope enhanced when the Wearsiders took the lead through a classily constructed and impressively despatched goal, albeit one against the run of play.
The last time this fixture was played, it was Arsenal loanee Nicklas Bendtner who scored the only goal of the game. On Saturday it was his replacement – £12million man Fletcher – who fired in the opener.
The Scot struck after outstanding work from stand-in right-back Craig Gardner, the Brummie getting forward well and slaloming past two challenges on the wing before driving a low, diagonal ball into the danger area.
Fletcher had spoken before the game about relishing the service from the flanks that Johnson, James McClean and Seb Larsson can provide, but they couldn’t have bettered Gardner’s delivery, which was turned home from six yards out by the striker’s left leg.
Goalkeeper Pepe Reina might have done better than to be beaten at his near post by the centre, but the goal was another example of Fletcher’s ability to sniff out an opportunity; that priceless gift of knowing where and when to be to maximise the chance of scoring.
Less than three hours into his Premier League career on Wearside and he already has more than a third of the number of goals top scorer Bendtner notched in the whole of last season.
His third goal in his second league appearance came just before the half-hour, up to which point Sunderland had been solid rather than spectacular.
They had been strong at the back but careless on occasions going forward – and the best openings had all gone Liverpool’s way.
Midfielder Jonjo Shelvey produced the first attempt on goal in the fourth minute after a slick move involving Luis Suarez, but the long-range shot was always going wide, as was Suarez’s 11th-minute effort which the striker created with a lovely first touch.
The first shot on target did not arrive until the 13th minute when Liverpool summer signing Fabio Borini shot from the right, with the ball deflecting on the way through, but Simon Mignolet was alert to the change of direction and smothered the ball.
Sunderland started to show signs of getting their act together after the quarter-hour, largely through their full-backs – good interceptions by Gardner, some impressive touches from Rose.
But that could all have been undone in the 18th minute when a header back to Mignolet from Cuellar lacked strength and Borini nipped in.
The Italian did little wrong, driving in a fierce shot from the right, but Mignolet had narrowed the angles and the shot was straight at him.
It was a rare scare at the back for Sunderland; it was further upfield where their problems lay with Sessegnon simply unable to get anything to stick to his usual glue-like boot.
The African, though, won a free-kick in the 20th minute which offered Sunderland their best chance of scoring before Fletcher notched – Seb Larsson curling in a deep free-kick from the left which everyone missed but dropping just a yard the wrong side of Reina’s left-hand post.
Raheem Sterling, on Liverpool’s right, and Rose at left-back were enjoying a good duel, with the Sunderland man holding his own well.
And that meant Liverpool’s only other chance before falling behind came from the centre of the pitch, when the ball dropped to Borini in front of goal and he hit a fine, first-time shot 15 yards out, from which Mignolet made an even finer save.
After Sunderland went ahead, Liverpool sagged and it was at this point that the hosts could have done with a second goal, with the visitors looking unsure.
Sunderland pressed for it – the tenacity of Fletcher and McClean in the 34th minute resulting in a cross from the left flashing through the area, but there was no-one to get a final touch to an inviting ball.
Sunderland did at least take their lead into the break – thanks in part to experienced referee Martin Atkinson spotting Suarez, far from being fouled, had dived over John O’Shea’s leg in the Sunderland penalty area in the 37th minute.
A yellow card, rather than a penalty, followed.
But, from the moment the second half started, it was clear Liverpool were determined to recapture and extend their former momentum.
Sunderland had to cope with the loss of hamstring victim Cuellar at the interval, and replacement Titus Bramble endured a torrid second half.
Shelvey set his side’s stall out early, hitting a 47th-minute shot from range before Liverpool won a corner a minute later.
A minute after that, attacking full-back Glenn Johnson flashed a ball across the area which whizzed through the six-yard box, but there was no-one there to attack it.
Johnson then cut inside from the left and curled a disguised shot against Mignolet’s crossbar as Liverpool’s goal threat continued.
Sunderland needed to get into the game and to do that they needed to keep hold of possession, but time and again they failed to do so.
It wasn’t until the 55th minute that they were able to gain respite when they won a corner and Colback’s centre from the right ended with Gardner firing in a snapshot which felled Martin Kelly.
Liverpool continued to hold the whip hand and should have levelled on the hour when goalmouth pressure saw the ball come back out to Steven Gerrard on the edge of the area.
It was the sort of chance the Liverpool skipper has made a career of sidefooting home, but, on this occasion, he steered it just wide, the ball brushing the outside of Mignolet’s left-hand post.
Five minutes later, the Belgian keeper produced a brilliant stop to prevent what would have been a lucky goal from the visitors – Gerrard’s shot deflecting to the head of Martin Skrtel, whose goal-bound effort from six yards out was successfully saved on the line.
Having ridden out all this pressure, Sunderland might have hoped to prosper and, gradually, they showed signs of getting their act together, but, just as their passing game was improving, they conceded the equaliser.
A tiring Rose was finally skipped past by Sterling’s trickery and the winger’s centre struck a stranded Bramble’s legs before bouncing back to Suarez, who smacked the ball home at the near post from six yards.
The nature of the goal was unfortunate – Rose had been signalling his tiredness for minutes beforehand and was due to be replaced; Bramble’s inability to react was compounded by the ball going straight back to Suarez – but the goal had been coming for some time.
Changes were made – Rose removed in favour of Fraizer Campbell, who went to the right wing, with Larsson moving inside and Colback dropping to left-back.
But Sunderland remained on the back foot and Mignolet had to make a great 80th-minute save to deny Shelvey as he waltzed through the penalty area.
Sunderland barely featured at all in front of goal, apart from a narrow-angled shot from McClean which cleared the bar in the dying stages.
Once again Lee Cattermole got through a Trojan amount of work against opposition which often had greater strength in numbers in midfield.
But for Sunderland to gain the upper hand, their front two needed to be involved more and the more the game went on, the more they faded.
Louis Saha should perhaps have come on five, 10 minutes earlier than he did, on the evidence of the injury-time snapshot he produced from distance which was not far away.
So, despite taking the lead for the second game in succession, it was Sunderland who were grateful to end with a point.
The Black Cats have now had three Premier League games and three draws so far and been the best side in none of those matches.
It’s no bad knack to have – to grind out points against sides who have the upper hand on you on the day – and it does no harm at all that Sunderland remain unbeaten.
But O’Neill will want performances in the weeks ahead in which it is his own side which looks too hot to handle.
To do that, he will need Johnson’s successful return and Sessegnon to be back to his best – something which was occupying his mind after Saturday’s game.
“Stephane? It’s not happening for him at the moment,” the manager mused, an observation which suggested getting the Benin international back to his best is one of his top priorities.
Sessegnon was not the sole reason for Sunderland’s failure to sparkle on Saturday.
But when the striker is at his irrepressible best, so is his team.