Sunderland burst Liverpool's title balloon

SUNDERLAND: If Liverpool were starting to believe the footballing gods were once again conspiring to thwart their long quest for a 19th league, they will be convinced after a 1-0 loss at Sunderland.

With history already against them - no side has recovered from losing three of their first eight games and still won the Premier League - the Merseysiders arrived at the Stadium of Light Saturday with the further handicap of losing talismen Fernando Torres and Steve Gerrard to injuries sustained on international duty.

But it was a bright red beach ball that proved their downfall on Wearside.

When bubbly Sunderland swept forward in the fifth minute, Andy Reid's cross from the right was helped on by Steed Malbranque into the path of Darren Bent.

The Black Cats top scorer struck a low right-foot shot that arrowed towards a beach ball in the box and when Glen Johnson's foot knocked it away, goalkeeper Pepe Reina took his eye off the ball that mattered, which flashed past him to spark wild celebrations among Sunderland fans.

Reid had sent a presentable chance over the bar after less than two minutes and Bent might have done better with a couple of headers during a sizzling first-half in front of a sell-out 47,327 crowd.

Liverpool remained a threat throughout, however, with 20-year-old midfielder Jay Spearing arriving on the edge of the area to get efforts at goal.

Sunderland's goal led a charmed life in the 12th minute as George McCartney's slip allowed Johnson to cross low from the right, but neither Spearing nor Ryan Babel could finish.

Babel speared a drive a yard or so over and Fabio Aurelio was wide from 25 yards from a free-kick.

On the half-hour it took a crucial last-ditch tackle from Phil Bardsley to prevent Johnson shooting from only eight yards, but Liverpool were thankful Bent's finishing was not as sharp as it has been this season when he headed straight at Reina.

With a lead to defend going into the second-half and Liverpool continuing to press, there was a danger of Bruce's side resorting to 'anywhere will do' defending, with clearances pumped into spaces rather that towards front men Bent and Kenwyne Jones.

But Sunderland were so close to adding a second 10 minutes after the interval when Lee Cattermole robbed Spearing and Jones sent Bent into the box, only for Reina to make a great stop.

On the hour, Bent again got a sight on goal when he beat Reina to Martin Skrtel's header back but hit the post from an acute angle.

There was a flashpoint moments later when Jones went down needing treatment and Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez suggested to the fourth official the Trinidad and Tobago forward was time-wasting.

This provoked a furious response from Sunderland boss Steve Bruce and the pair had to be kept apart as Jones was carried off to play no further part.

Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benyoun got in each other's way after 68 minutes challenging for a ball that bounced up in front of goal and the effort they managed between them, though tame and easy for home keeper Craig Gordon, was the visitors' first on target.

The hosts then carved out a glorious opening when Bent fed Malbranque in the area, but Jamie Carragher launched himself to block.

Liverpool sent in the cavalry, Andriy Voronin and Javier Mascherano replacing Skrtel and Spearing with 18 minutes remaining, with David Ngog following for Babel.

Voronin's header from Bardsley's spooned clearance was taken in the 84th minute by Gordon, who then had to tip over Johnson's cross.

Seven minutes of added time were shown during which Gordon produced a sensational double save from Kuyt and Ngog as Liverpool fell short.