This was a display to suggest that Liverpool will still be in the title shake-up come May. It had Rafael Benitez purring, and rightly. His team should have beaten Chelsea last Sunday at Anfield, before Rob Styles decided to award that penalty. Here they travelled to the north-east and before a hostile crowd produced a professional win.
It was sparked by a telling contribution from Mohamed Sissoko. In for the injured Steven Gerrard, the Malian scored Liverpool's 7,000th league goal and his first for the club to underline the depth of squad now at Anfield.
'It was really important. We played well and made a lot of chances,' said Benitez. 'We killed the game at the end with our second, which was good for the supporters. But as a manager, it is not so good for my health this way. It was important to see Sissoko come in and a different player doing the job. We have a stronger squad now and players who can run and create chances.'
He certainly does. Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel and Andriy Voronin were direct, fast and clinical. All three new arrivals are of the quality Liverpool have not been able to attract since John Barnes was creating havoc for the superb team of the late 1980s. Voronin, who joined Sissoko in claiming a first league goal for the club, caused trouble with his strength and aggression.
Forty-four Ukraine caps, five international goals, and four years in German football is a solid enough record. But 28 can be a little old to make the breakthrough at one of Europe's better clubs, so Benitez must be particularly pleased. On this evidence he will give Dirk Kuyt healthy competition to partner Torres. 'He worked hard and ran the lines well,' his manager agreed.
Voronin's goal finished a sweet move just before full time. Babel fed Torres, who helped the ball on. Voronin then cut inside and finished expertly beyond Craig Gordon. The £9 million keeper had been excellent throughout, ensuring Sunderland still had a chance of equalising until near the end. 'He was busy. But if you think you're going to play against top teams like Liverpool and your keeper isn't going to be worked then you are living in cloud cuckoo land,' was Roy Keane's verdict.
The Sunderland manager came into the press conference smiling and professed himself 'slightly happier than I was last weekend after Wigan. No one likes losing football matches, but there are ways to lose. At one-nil you're always hopeful. Liverpool created a lot and they obviously have a depth to their squad'.
A visit to Manchester United is next, before a crowd who will surely give him a hero's welcome. But realistically that could also prove a third defeat on the bounce. So, is it a case of concentrating on matches against the lesser teams to ensure safety? 'No. I believed this morning we could beat Liverpool. I had a good feeling about it. Certain managers have their little table of clubs. But I'm not going down that road ... yet.'
The pause before that last word drew a grin from Keane. Renowned for being a realist, he claimed he had few complaints about his side's performance. But that might have been because there is little point publicly criticising players. Although there was the obvious gap in class, Sunderland were tentative with or without the ball. Greg Halford and Liam Miller, in particular, had games of skied clearances and clumsy touches that decent technique and composure should prevent.
'I have to remind myself there are some young players here,' was the closest Keane came to a grumble. But on this showing it is understandable why he hopes for more players before the transfer window closes. Asked if he was pleased with business so far, his two short, uncompromising responses of 'Yeah' could be read either way.
Liverpool's performance could not. It was exactly what was required. Xabi Alonso created their first. He played a diagonal ball to the right edge of the six- yard box. Jermaine Pennant, excellent throughout, headed back. Torres could not collect. But Voronin could and he touched the ball on to the Sissoko. His shot from 20 yards was sweet. As Benitez commented, although 'Torres did not score, he created problems'.
Nyron Nosworthy knew all about those. He was the unfortunate defender who was asked, and failed, to get close to him all afternoon. If he, Babel, Voronin and Gerrard stay fit, Liverpool have a real chance of their first title for 18 years. They also need Jamie Carragher healthy. He limped off with a suspected broken rib in the second half. 'We will wait and see,' added Benitez.
So do the Anfield crowd for Saturday's visit of Derby. A win then and Liverpool will have the start that has been lacking since the Spanish coach took over.
37' 0-1 Sissoko
87' 0-2 Voronin
Craig Gordon, Greg Halford, Paul McShane, Nyron Nosworthy, Dickson Etuhu, Liam Miller, Kieran Richardson (Anthony Stokes), Ross Wallace, Michael Chopra, Daryl Murphy (David Connolly), Dwight Yorke (Grant Leadbitter)
Jose Manuel Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Jamie Carragher (John Arne Riise), Steve Finnan, Sami Hyypia (Daniel Agger), Xabi Alonso, Jermaine Pennant, Mohamed Sissoko, Ryan Babel (Dirk Kuyt), Fernando Torres, Andriy Voronin
Referee: Halsey, M
Venue: Stadium of Light
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007