KEVIN Ball took his players for a stroll on Seaburn beach before yesterday’s game: “to meet the people they would be playing for.”
It was sound and helpful psychology for a squad newly-assembled this summer and drawn together from all corners of Europe.
Certainly, Sunderland played with a purpose against Liverpool which suggested they knew how much it meant to play for the shirt.
But they could have been forgiven if they felt the sands shifting beneath their feet, for the Premier League table makes depressing viewing today – one point taken from 18 and, with Manchester United up next, the odds strong it will be one from 21.
This is the sort of statistical cliff face that teams struggle to overcome, even at this early stage of the season.
The worst Premier League team in Sunderland’s history – Mick McCarthy’s 15-pointers – took four points from their first 21 in the 2005-06 season!
This current team is better than that, we should remind ourselves.
Much, much better.
But the worrying statistics were there even before kick-off yesterday – Sunderland having won only three games against Liverpool in 24 Premier League meetings (and one of those wins was beachball-assisted).
There was also the small matter of Luis Suarez’s record of better than a goal a game against Sunderland and the fact that his strike partner Daniel Sturridge had scored seven times in his last four away league games for a Reds side undefeated on the road in the league this season.
These were hardly the numbers to give encouragement to a side labouring under the most over-riding stat of all – that they are the only side without a win in the Premier League this season.
The game threw up a quirky stat of its own when both clubs named unchanged sides – such a rarity for Premier League clubs.
For Sunderland, that meant Emanuele Giaccherini becoming part of an orthodox five-man midfield on the left wing, with Lee Cattermole continuing in central midfield alongside Ki Sung-Yeung and Seb Larsson.
For Liverpool, it saw former Sunderland stars Simon Mignolet and Jordan Henderson included in the starting XI, while Suarez made his league return from a 10-game ban for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic back in April.
The Uruguayan threatened to grab the headlines immediately when he out-muscled Larsson in the fourth minute and rifled off a shot from 25 yards which swerved off to the right of goal.
But Sunderland settled – Giaccherini’s cross from the left dipped close to Mignolet’s goal, Adam Johnson won a free-kick just outside Liverpool’s 18-yard-box, Larsson followed that up with a corner – and it was beginning to look as though the hosts were getting themselves in the game when Lee Cattermole brought down Sturridge in the Black Cats’ “D” in the ninth minute.
It was perfect Steven Gerrard territory and the Liverpool skipper did not disappoint, producing a rasping drive beyond the wall, only for Westwood to make an equally high-quality save, one-handed, diving to his left.
Martin Skrtel followed up to clip the ball home, but the flag was rightly up for offside and that let-off seemed to inspire Sunderland, who put the visitors under real pressure in the minutes that followed.
Apart from the occasional scare from the ever-dangerous Suarez, Sunderland looked reasonably comfortable and, in the 23rd minute, almost got the breakthrough when Giaccherini was brought down by Lucas.
Larsson stepped up to curl a right-foot shot, 25 yards out from the left of goal, against Mignolet’s crossbar with the keeper beaten – a reminder that, in football, failure can be measured in fractions.
Liverpool were being forced to play on the counter-attack, with Sunderland on the front foot.
But few teams are better suited to play that way than Liverpool these days and, in the 25th minute, they threatened when Gerrard’s low cross from the right was blocked out by John O’Shea to Victor Moses, whose rising shot flashed over the bar.
Despite that chance, Sunderland could have been delighted with their efforts up to that point – which only made Liverpool’s opening goal all the more crushing, coming as it did off Sturridge’s elbow.
Gerrard’s deep-hit corner from the left in the 28th minute was delivered with trademark power and dip and was not well-defended by Sunderland as it flashed across the six-yard box and found Sturridge, at the far post, who turned the ball goalwards.
Westwood and Larsson, on the line, were unable to prevent the goal, but it should never have stood, because it was actually a foul.
If you wanted to be fair to the officials, you would say that the incident happened at such speed that Sunderland players themselves did not universally appeal.
But – like referee Martin Atkinson’s howler against Arsenal which saw a perfectly legitimate Jozy Altidore goal disallowed – it was typical of Sunderland’s luck that neither Howard Webb nor his linesman should spot the injustice.
The officials did not cover themselves in glory a couple of minutes later either when, from a Sunderland attack, they failed to spot a back-pass from Kolo Toure to Mignolet inside the six-yard box.
Sunderland continued to be good value in the minutes that followed, pressing hard, although they had little to show for it apart from a Ki shot wide in the 34th minute.
But a couple of minutes later Sunderland were 2-0 down when a wonderful, diagonal long ball from Gerrard, deep in his own half, reached Sturridge wide on the right in a perfect counter-attacking position.
Carlos Cuellar came across to cover and was pushed back to the 18-yard box by the England striker, who then dropped a shoulder, sprinted towards the touchline and played the ball across goal for the unmarked Suarez to tap in at the far post from a yard out.
It was tough to take for Sunderland, but their heads did not drop and their spirit did not flicker – they knew they had played some good stuff, with Giaccherini a livewire, Ki a playmaker and Cattermole a driving force.
They were given hope in the 38th minute when Toure handled from Giaccherini’s touch, but Gardner’s free-kick was blocked out for a corner and the home team got nothing from Larsson’s flag-kick.
Then they might have thrown themselves a lifeline when Cattermole produced an innovative ball over the top in the 44th minute which reached Gardner just ahead of the Liverpool defence, with the flag staying down.
But the Brummie’s instinctive touch lacked power and Mignolet spread himself well to block the left-foot shot.
Johnson started the second half the way he had ended the first, with a powerful shot wide of the target.
And it was clear, at that point, that Sunderland needed to be better in their finishing; needed to be getting their shots on target if they were to have any hope of prospering.
In the 48th minute, they did just that and, from that bit of accuracy, they got a goal.
Ki worked himself an opening from range directly in front of goal and though Mignolet managed to parry the low and powerful shot, the alert Giaccherini nipped in to clip the ball home.
The 40,000-plus crowd lifted the roof with hope and that noise would undoubtedly have been topped a couple of minutes later when Gardner unleashed a powerful 25-yarder which was flying into the bottom corner before Mignolet dived to his right and managed to bundle it around the post.
It was the sort of save Sunderland fans saw all too often last season to lift their hopes. This time it would break their hearts.
The ghosts of Sunderland’s immediate past are returning to haunt the club and doing so in record time – newly-sold Stephane Sessegnon turning the screw in the Black Cats’ last outing; Mignolet producing the critical save this time around.
Sunderland never quite managed to go as close again, though Altidore stung the gloves of Mignolet with a long-range 62nd-minute effort and a Larsson free-kick punted into the box from distance a minute later tested the Liverpool keeper’s alertness.
Liverpool had had their half-chances up to the hour – Gerrard and Suarez might easily have got a goal on another day with snapshots in the box – but, in the 66th minute, it took a great save from Westwood to deny a rising shot from Moses which he tipped over the bar.
A minute later, the keeper was almost deceived by a Moses cross from the left which went close to sneaking in at the far post.
Sunderland replied with a raking centre from Gardner which was headed out for a corner in the 68th minute, but in the last 20 minutes, Sunderland looked spent, particularly in midfield where Ki, Larsson and Cattermole looked to have all but run themselves out.
Cattermole was replaced by Ondrej Celustka in the 74th minute; Larsson by Mavrias in the 85th and they kept on going but without producing a final goal threat.
Sunderland had spent much of the second half camped out in Liverpool’s half, but the most genuinely dangerous attack in the latter stages came from defender Kolo Toure, who advanced in the 78th minute and produced a shot which Westwood once again needed to tip over his bar.
With only one goal separating the two sides, Sunderland continued to live in hope, but that hope was extinguished in the 89th minute when Suarez got his second of the game, Liverpool’s third, thanks to a flawless counter-attack.
Sunderland had won a late corner, but Johnson’s centre from the right – as it had been for so much of the afternoon – was poor.
Mignolet picked up possession and flung the ball out to Suarez, on the right, who drove it diagonally to Sturridge, on the left.
He got to the six-yard box before pulling the ball back perfectly for his strike partner, who had continued his run and swept the ball home with an imperious finish.
It put the seal on the Black Cats’ fourth successive league defeat – all coming with the opposition netting three times.
Sunderland’s day had started with a walk along the beach.
It had ended with them stranded in deep water.
And with the Red Devils up next, despite their early-season troubles, the incoming tide does not look like ebbing anytime soon.