SUNDERLAND gave title-chasing Liverpool a real scare after mounting a late comeback at Anfield.
But the Black Cats still succumbed to a fourth defeat in five Premier League outings, as Gus Poyet’s side were unable to profit from one of the games in hand on their relegation rivals.
Sunderland frustrated Liverpool during the first half before Steven Gerrard smashed home a 38th minute free-kick after Santiago Vergini was very fortunate not to earn a red card.
The hosts then doubled their advantage early in the second half when Daniel Sturridge’s shot was deflected beyond Vito Mannone.
But the introduction of Ki Sung-Yueng and Adam Johnson injected a spark into Sunderland’s play and after Lee Cattermole had hit the bar, Ki halved the deficit from a corner.
John O’Shea then went agonisingly close to a late equaliser, but Sunderland couldn’t narrow the three-point gap with the safety mark.
Gus Poyet made five changes from the side which performed so poorly at Norwich last weekend, but more intriguingly opted for a new formation by introducing a five-man defence.
Santiago Vergini lined up alongside John O’Shea and Wes Brown in central defence, while Andrea Dossena came in at left-back for the suspended Marcos Alonso.
Emanuele Giaccherini and Lee Cattermole were given opportunities in midfield, with the latter starting alongside January signing Liam Bridcutt for the first time.
And Connor Wickham was handed only his second start of the season after being recalled from his loan spell at Leeds United, with the England Under-21 international partnering Jozy Altidore up front.
Liverpool were unchanged from the starting XI which triumphed 6-3 at Cardiff City on Saturday, with former Sunderland duo Simon Mignolet and Jordan Henderson both starting.
Luis Suarez tried his luck from a dangerous-looking free-kick 25 yards out in the seventh minute, but the Uruguayan’s effort cleared the crossbar by a foot.
Daniel Sturridge then let fly from the edge of the area three minutes later, but his left-footed shot from the right of goal was again over the top.
But Liverpool were limited to efforts from distance during the opening 25 minutes, as Sunderland maintained their defensive shape well.
Suarez had another effort from long range in the 35th minute when he pounced on a ricochet off Lee Cattermole, surged inside off the right flank, but his shot from 20 yards was wide of the far post.
Sunderland were very fortunate not to be reduced to 10 men two minutes later when Santiago Vergini’s loose touch let Suarez in behind him, 25 yards out, and the defender swept away his legs when he would have had a clear run on goal.
Referee Kevin Friend bafflingly decided to only hand Vergini a yellow card, although Sunderland’s reprieve was only temporary.
From the resulting free-kick, Steven Gerrard powered a right-footed shot into the roof of the net, with Vito Mannone slightly wrong-footed after taking a small step to his left.
Wickham tested Mignolet three minutes before the interval when he let fly with a shot from the edge of the area which took a wicked deflection off Martin Skrtel and required the Liverpool keeper to readjust and push it behind.
Vergini then somehow escaped a second yellow card on the stroke of half-time when he went to ground and brought down Suarez on the left-hand side of the area. Friend only awarded the free-kick though.
HALF-TIME Liverpool 1 Sunderland 0
Liverpool doubled their advantage after just three minutes of the second half when Henderson fed Sturridge on the far right-hand side of the area.
Sturridge made a yard for himself and hit a left-footed shot towards the far corner which took a wicked deflection off Wes Brown and looped into the far corner.
Liverpool went close again in the 54th minute when Sturridge’s shot from the edge of the area inadvertantly clipped Suarez and fell invitingly into the path of the striker.
Suarez attempted to back-heel the ball beyond Mannone from point-blank range, but the Sunderland keeper blocked at his near post.
The Premier League’s top scorer went close again five minutes later when he easily shrugged off Vergini down the left-hand channel, surged inside, but curled his shot wide of the far post.
Suarez produced a magical dink over the top for the onrushing Coutinho in the 65th minute, but the Brazilian could only lift his shot straight into the arms of Mannone.
Sunderland were desperately unfortunate not to pull one back in the 71st minute after Cattermole was denied his first Black Cats goal by the woodwork.
Poyet’s side produced a flowing move which culminated in Phil Bardsley crossing from the right and substitute Adam Johnson directing the ball back across goal from the far post.
It rolled into the path of Cattermole on the edge of the area, who hit across the ball with his right foot, only to be denied by the underside of the crossbar.
Moments later, Sturridge was denied by the bar at the other end when Joe Allen inadvertantly sent the ball back into his path on the edge of the area and the England striker curled a shot towards the far corner which came back off the woodwork.
Sunderland were rewarded for a decent spell of pressure though when they halved the deficit in the 76th minute.
Johnson’s corner from the right was allowed to go all the way across the face of the goal where Ki Sung-Yueng was free to head it home on the far post.
Suarez then just cleared the bar with a free-kick from 25 yards in the 81st minute, as Liverpool looked to restore their two-goal advantage.
Sunderland had a great chance to level with two minutes to go when Johnson curled in a free-kick from the left which was met by John O’Shea, whose glancing header bounced agonisingly across the face of goal.
FULL-TIME Liverpool 2 Sunderland 1
LIVERPOOL: Mignolet, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Flanagan, Gerrard, Allen, Henderson, Coutinho, Suarez, Sturridge (Sterling 77). Subs not used: Jones, Sakho, Lucas, Cissokho, Moses, Aspas
SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Bardsley, Dossena (Colback 83), Brown, O’Shea, Vergini, Cattermole, Bridcutt, Giaccherini (Johnson 61), Altidore, Wickham (Ki 61). Subs not used: Ustari, Roberge, Larsson, Scocco. Booked: Vergini (37), Bardsley (40)