AFTER THE week that has just passed, those who find cause for pessimism in every ache and strain afflicting members of England's World Cup squad will derive great satisfaction in Michael Owen's deliverance of three precious points for Liverpool last night.
Conjecture about his form and fitness has followed the nation's most potent striker around in recent games but he demonstrated with the decisive intervention in the 55th minute that his goal-scoring instincts remain intact.
His supreme opportunism as he latched onto Steven Gerrard's pass before lofting the ball over Thomas Sorensen enabled Liverpool to run up a sixth successive Premiership victory and leapfrog Manchester United as Arsenal's closest rivals for the title. It was just the result they had wanted after departing from the European Cup in such uncharacteristic circumstances four days before.
Defeat for Sunderland means they can still not cast off their relegation fears. On more than one occasion following Owen's breakthrough they prepared to salute an equaliser only for their celebrations to be cut short as Jerzy Dudek took flight and pulled off two memorable saves. A minute from time Sunderland were reduced to 10 men when Claudio Reyna received a second yellow card for chopping down Owen.
Going out of Europe's premier club competition was bad enough for Liverpool, especially as it cost them a semi-final meeting with Manchester United, but it was the fact that they conceded four goals that was the most astonishing aspect of their defeat to Bayer Leverkusen.
Sunderland are not prolific scorers at the best of times, indeed Leicester's pair of goals at Everton earlier in the day had put them level with Peter Reid's men on 26, but even accepting that, Liverpool needed to return to their parsimonious ways.
It was reassuring for them that Sami Hyypia was able to shake off a touch of flu. A hamstring problem left Emile Heskey sidelined both for this contest and England's midweek date with Paraguay. That facilitated Nicolas Annelka's return while Jari Litmanen was preferred to Danny Murphy.
Sunderland still believe they are one win away from reaching the safety mark and it can not come soon enough after an unhappy season carrying precious few echoes of previous campaigns which ended in successive top-seven finishes. It did not handicap their cause yesterday that Kevin Phillips was named in the line-up after a stomach muscle injury made him an early withdrawal in last week's defeat at Leeds.
It was not a pretty first 45 minutes and clear openings were not so much scarce as virtually non-existent. Both defences held a tight line and remained compact and Liverpool were frequently snared in Sunderland's offside trap.
John Arne Riise was first to test Sorensen with a dipping long-range effort and he went close again when he blazed a rising shot over the top.
Jason McAteer caused Jerzy Dudek his only real moment of first-half concern with a drive which sailed just over, while Jody Craddock blocked shots from Litmanen and Riise.
Craddock again came to the rescue a minute before the break after Anelka raced away down the left and squared for strike partner Owen, but the defender threw himself into the line of fire to protect Sorensen's goal.
After Owen's coolly taken goal, the game opened up as Sunderland made a desperate attempt to force their way back into the game. Niall Quinn brought a fine save from Dudek with a 67th-minute volley but shortly after the match should have been beyond them when Anelka raced clear.
The Frenchman twisted his way past both Joachim Bjorklund and Darren Williams before beating Sorensen, only to see his left-footed shot come back off the post.
Dudek climbed high to pluck a Phillips shot out of his top corner five minutes later, but he could only look on in hope two minutes later as Phillips arrived to meet a Kevin Kilbane cross at the near post but put his header wide.
Sunderland threw everything they had at the visitors in the closing stages but their disappointment was compounded at the death when Reyna lunged at Owen and, having already been booked, received his marching orders.
Owen afterwards praised England colleague Gerrard's through-ball that set up the lobbed goal. "It was a great ball, he's great at those types of passes, and when I saw the keeper there was not a lot else I could do."
Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier was full of praise for his side who bounced back from the midweek Champions League exit at Bayer Leverkusen.
"A good team is one that doesn't lose twice in a row and the players deserve a lot of credit," said Houllier. "They were brave, worked very hard and in terms of energy they were brilliant.
"We know Sunderland is not an easy place to come and win but I thought we showed the character and determination not to concede a goal and take advantage of any opportunities that came up."
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