SUNDERLAND limped to a third defeat in four Premier League outings after a woeful display against Liverpool.
Lazar Markovic’s early goal proved sufficient for Liverpool to come away with all three points at the Stadium of Light, yet the visitors could - and should - have triumphed by a far more comprehensive margin.
In the first half, particularly, Sunderland were dreadful; flat, pedestrian and careless, with only poor finishing and the woodwork preventing Liverpool from being out of sight.
Sunderland’s task was made doubly difficult early in the second half when Liam Bridcutt was dismissed for a second yellow card, but the Black Cats arguably performed better with 10 men.
They could have drawn level, with Adam Johnson’s long-range shot crashing against the underside of the bar, but that was the only occasion in which Sunderland put Simon Mignolet’s goal under any pressure.
There was a surprise in the Liverpool line-up beforehand, with ex-Sunderland loanee Fabio Borini handed only his second Premier League start of the season.
His former boss, Gus Poyet, made four changes to the Sunderland starting line-up with Wes Brown, Seb Larsson, Connor Wickham and Adam Johnson all back in the fold after last weekend’s FA Cup third round win over Leeds United.
Ineligible on-loan Liverpool defender Sebastian Coates missed out, while Jack Rodwell and Steven Fletcher were both ruled out through injury.
And there was no place among the substitutes for Jozy Altidore - heavily linked with a return to America’s MLS this week - who was absent due to illness.
Sunderland were fortunate to escape without conceding a penalty inside the opening three minutes as Patrick van Aanholt failed to intercept Philippe Coutinho’s through-ball and it ran through to Lazar Markovic on the edge of the area.
Markovic knocked it beyond Wes Brown and looked to have been tripped by the Sunderland centre-half, but referee Craig Pawson waved play on.
But the reprieve was only temporary, as Markovic did break the deadlock in the ninth minute.
The Serbian collected the ball in space on the right flank, burst forwards and played it into the path of Steven Gerrard who got to it ahead of Brown and helped it into the path of Borini on the edge of the area.
Borini was taken out by John O’Shea, but Pawson waved play on as the ball ran into the path of Markovic who bundled it under Costel Pantilimon.
Liverpool utterly dominated the proceedings which followed against a flat, pedestrian and careless Sunderland.
Gerrard forced Pantilimon to tip over the bar in the 28th minute with an inswinging free-kick from the far left-hand side of the area.
Sunderland didn’t clear their lines from the resulting corner and it bounced into the path of Markovic, 25 yards out, who hit a brilliant improvised half-volley which struck the bar, hit Pantilimon as it came down and then bounced behind.
Gerrard fired marginally wide into the side netting seven minutes before the break after the Liverpool skipper was played in down the right-hand side of the area on the break, following a needless giveaway in midfield by Sunderland.
Borini then had a golden opportunity a minute before the interval when a brilliant long-range pass from the back by Emre Can sent the Italian in behind the Sunderland defence.
Borini went round the advancing Costel Pantilimon, but from a narrow angle to the right of goal, he could only fire into the side netting.
HALF-TIME Sunderland 0 Liverpool 1
Liverpool began the second half on the front foot, with Markovic blasting a couple of yards wide from the edge of the area after Giaccherini only partially cleared a corner.
Sunderland’s task then became doubly difficult in the 49th minute when Bridcutt was shown a second yellow card for clipping the legs of Can as he surged down the right-hand touchline, although there was minimal contact from the Sunderland man.
However, the Black Cats came desperately close to levelling three minutes later when Johnson was given too much space 25 yards out, steadied himself and let fly with a left-footed rocket towards goal.
The ball swerved visciously in the air, but with Mignolet beaten, it crashed back off the crossbar, hit the goalkeeper and then Liverpool managed to clear.
Liverpool remained a threat though; Coutinho whistling a low shot just wide after being given chance to pick his spot 20 yards out.
Substitute Mario Balotelli then went close in the 71st minute when he turned away from Brown down the left-hand side of area and fired a shot towards the near post which was beaten away by Pantilimon.
FULL-TIME Sunderland 0 Liverpool 1
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Vergini, van Aanholt, O’Shea, Brown, Bridcutt, Larsson, Gomez, Johnson (Mandron 86), Giaccherini (Buckley 77), Wickham (Graham 77). Subs not used: Jones, Alvarez, Agnew, Mannone. Booked: Vergini (28), Bridcutt (35). Sent off: Bridcutt (49)
LIVERPOOL: Mignolet, Can, Skrtel, Sakho, Henderson, Moreno, Lucas, Gerrard (Lovren 46), Markovic, Coutinho, Borini (Balotelli 67). Subs not used: Ward, Enrique, Lambert, Manquillo, Rossiter. Booked: Borini (17), Coutinho (36), Henderson (54), Lovren (55)