Bent brace twists knife in suffering Anfield outfit
Liverpool 2 Sunderland 2
A fixture with no notable previous history has developed a reputation for bizarre goals. After last season's one that bounced off a beachball to help Sunderland to victory came a strike here that, this time, benefited Liverpool.
This was meant to be the sunlight after the storm that was Wednesday's humiliating defeat to Northampton Town in the Carling Cup, when the regulars returned to the team and inspired the win that would not only restore pride but also kick-start Liverpool's so-far prosaic start to the Premier League season. Instead the hosts again looked disjointed and at times utterly clueless. They were, in truth, lucky to gain even a point.
Sunderland deserve credit for the manner in which they pressurised their opponents and used possession with eye-catching precision. That was no more so apparent than in the build-up to their second goal, which saw the impressive young midfielder Jordan Henderson win a header from Christian Poulsen that was then passed onto Nedum Onuoha by Steed Malbranque before the full-back delivered an excellent cross from the right wing which Darren Bent could not help but head past Jose Reina.
It was the England striker's second goal of the game after he had also converted a penalty on 25 minutes. Again Poulsen was at fault, with the Denmark midfielder having clearly handballed Ahmed Elmohamaday's cross.
That strike winded Liverpool whose positive performance to that point totally disintegrated. In that period they had taken the lead through Dirk Kuyt on his return to the side from a shoulder injury. It was a strike which caused bafflement and, for Sunderland, outrage, in equal measure.
The visitors had been awarded a free-kick just outside their area following a foul by Raul Meireles on Titus Bramble. Michael Turner nudged the ball back towards his goalkeeper Simon Mignolet but it was woefully short and Fernando Torres was able to intercept possession before playing a pass to Kuyt that he in turn comfortably converted.
Sunderland's players and their manager, Steve Bruce, complained that Turner had not taken the free-kick and was instead simply moving the ball into position for Mignolet to instead take the set-piece but the referee, Stuart Atwell, ignored their protests and the goal stood. The first, incidentally, Liverpool have scored in the first-half of a league game this season.
Bruce tempered his criticism of referee Stuart Attwell afterwards. "I've been in enough trouble so I don't want to talk about it but you all witnessed it and he got it wrong," he said. "The free-kick was 25 yards from where the incident was and I think everyone in the ground realised that too."
Credit, then, to Sunderland for not allowing their anger to disrupt their plans and almost immediately they began to dominate the game.
Liverpool playing in an unusual 4-2-2-1-1 formation could not maintain possession for any length of time and increasingly began to give the ball away, with Fernando Torres again looking hapless and helpless. Their slackness invited pressure from which Bent capitalised either side of half-time.
A third consecutive defeat looked certain for the hosts but they could take something from the game after Steven Gerrard equalised on 64 minutes, with a powerful header from Torres' right-wing cross. The substitute David Ngog and Cole then had chances to win the game for Roy Hodgson's men but it would have been undeserved.
Hodgson admitted it had been another missed opportunity to get Liverpool's season back on track, with their first six matches now having brought one win, three draws and two defeats. But he accepted they were playing well below what was required to be considered Champions League qualification form.
"Had we won today we could have found ourselves in fourth or fifth place, although I don't think we are playing like a team in fourth or fifth place," he said. "We have to start winning all games because the league is very tight. Of course we are playing at home, we were 1-0 up and hopefully we would go on to build on that but, unfortunately, there was an opponent as well and they had something to say on the matter."
The match ended as it had started, with the home supporters protesting against the club's American owners. All in all it was another bleak day for this once mighty club.