ANFIELD ONLINE MATCH REPORT
Xabi Alonso inspired 10-man Liverpool to a sixth win in seven Barclays Premiership games as the Reds climbed into fourth place with victory at Sunderland.
Even Mohamed Sissoko's 65th-minute dismissal and the extension of Peter Crouch's goal drought to 11 minutes short of 24 hours could not halt the Reds' charge as Sunderland slumped to an eighth successive defeat, seven of them in the league.
The game was won within 14 first-half minutes through the invention of Spanish midfielder Alonso, who first played in compatriot Luis Garcia to open the scoring on 31 minutes and then fed skipper Steven Gerrard to make it 2-0 on the stroke of half-time.
Once again the Black Cats, for all their hard work and positive intentions, were simply outclassed in the areas that mattered most, and even a spirited finish could not bring them any relief as the bulk of a crowd of 32,697 went home disappointed for the third time in 11 days.
Gerrard, Alonso and Luis Garcia simply had too much for the home side in the middle of the park, and but for a penalty decision that was not given and a John Arne Riise piledriver which hit the bar, the margin of victory could have been bigger.
Those Sunderland fans who did turn up at the Stadium of Light did so in trepidation, many of them having already conceded that relegation is inevitable and fearing the worst against the European champions.
With Crouch still to find the back of the net in 22 hours and 30 minutes of football for club and country since May 7, there were plenty of takers at the stadium betting shops following the home side's abject surrender against Aston Villa and Birmingham in their last two home games.
Liverpool arrived at the Stadium of Light as the last team to lose a Premiership game on Wearside, some 19 top-flight fixtures ago on December 15, 2002, and despite a spirited opening from the Black Cats, the chances of a repeat were slim.
Manager Mick McCarthy had publicly criticised his players following their capitulation at the weekend and he got the desired response as they gave as good as they got for half an hour, admittedly without causing any genuine problems for Reds keeper Jose Reina and his defence.
However, the concern for Sunderland is that they simply do not boast the class of many of their opponents, and that fact was illustrated graphically twice inside the final 14 minutes of the half.
Only Alonso will know what was in his mind when, deep inside his own half on 31 minutes, he hooked the ball over his shoulder into enemy territory.
However, Luis Garcia anticipated perfectly to outstrip the home defence and slot calmly past advancing keeper Ben Alnwick to open the scoring.
The Black Cats rallied briefly, but they were left with a mountain to climb on the stroke of half-time when Alonso picked out Gerrard's run down the right.
His pass gave the England midfielder the space he needed to surge into the box, but it was his deft touch over Alnwick which left him with the simplest of finishes to pile on the misery for McCarthy's men.
Crouch's barren spell should have come to an end after 1,397 minutes when he found himself unmarked in front of goal when Gerrard's shot came his way.
His initial effort was blocked by Alnwick, but he seemed certain to score from the rebound until he appeared to be hauled down by Steve Caldwell.
Referee Phil Dowd, however, astonishingly waved play on, and the striker's drought continued.
Sunderland's plight reached near comical levels on 52 minutes when Jon Stead, yet to score for his new club, shot for goal in his frustration at being flagged offside, but still could not beat Reina.
Tommy Miller made way for winger Andy Welsh five minutes later, but Liverpool would have been further ahead within seconds had Justin Hoyte not blocked Riise's volley from Crouch's knock-down.
Luis Garcia curled in a 59th-minute left-footed effort, which Alnwick saved, but the arrival of Harry Kewell in place of Fernando Morientes shortly afterwards did little to ease the home side's fears.
However, Liverpool were reduced to 10 men on seven minutes later when midfielder Sissoko, who had earlier been booked for a foul on Liam Lawrence, upended Dean Whitehead and was dismissed.
But it was they who continued to look the more likely scorers, Riise seeing a 74th-minute drive cannon off the crossbar after he had carved his way through the home defence.
Crouch's departure five minutes later left him without a goal in 1,429 minutes, but he was at least able to celebrate another victory for Benitez's in-from side.
Stead might have ended his own drought six minutes from time when Reina fumbled his low shot at the near post, and he then sent a dipping effort over, but even a consolation strike eluded his side.
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|Match Report filed: 30 November 2005|