Football: Liverpool get back on track

Sunderland 1 Liverpool 2
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Liverpool, the first visitors to Roker Park 99 years ago, will be the last when they provide the opposition in a farewell match after the season's end next month. After their reacquaintance with victory on Wearside yesterday they may well return as Premiership champions - for a relegation wake.

Robbie Fowler cranked the Anfield machine back into winning order, stooping to head his 30th goal of the season and teeing up Steve McManaman's 10th with as sublime an assist as Roker has seen in its time.

It was not exactly champion fare from Roy Evans' team but they did enough to put the pressure back on Manchester United, who will head down the East Lancs Road without a lead to protect in Saturday's North-west summit meeting if Liverpool enjoy a successful night on the blue side of Stanley Park on Wednesday.

When Saturday comes Sunderland will also be engaged in a regional contest of critical importance. Having dropped into a relegation place with one win from their last 13 games, they will be facing the realistic prospect of welcoming Bury and Brentford to their new home next season if they fail to beat Middlesbrough in the battle of the Premiership's endangered North-east species.

Sunderland's last victory against Liverpool was their first outside the top flight; Ronnie Moran was wearing the No 3 shirt for the visitors that August afternoon, back in 1958. They never looked like putting that historical record straight yesterday, even though their Anfield old boy, Paul Stewart, provided some hope of a point-saving exercise with his third goal of a season that seems increasingly certain to end in sorrow for Sunderland.

Though they had "Samson" emblazoned on their shirts, Peter Reid's team of old stagers lacked the strength to even test the handling of David James. The Liverpool goalkeeper failed to get near to Stewart's header but he might as well have occupied himself with his Nintendo; when the whistle blew he had yet to make a save.

Evans kept faith with his keeper, despite his recent collywobbles, and - with Stan Collymore hamstrung - pushed Steve McManaman forward to forage in tandem with Fowler, whose razor sharpness always looked the most likely threat of damage to Sunderland. There were echoes of Thursday night's Paris mis-match when the French resistance of Lionel Perez frustrated Liverpool's chief striker with a one-on-one block. But once Fowler found the net, after 33 minutes, the final outcome seemed inevitable.

Stig Inge Bjornebye hoisted a right-wing cross and Mark Wright nodded the ball to the edge of the six-yard box for Fowler to apply the required finishing touch with a diving header. Liverpool's second, three minutes into the second half, was brilliant testimony to the Anfield predator's creative instincts.

Darting out to the left flank, with one flashing movement Fowler took possession of Steve Harkness' raking pass and hooked the ball round the shadowing Lee Howey and into the goalmouth. It was silver-platter service to McManaman, who duly devoured his tap-in chance.

There was still 37 minutes to play when Stewart headed in Chris Waddle's right wing corner. The introduction of Niall Quinn produced a sitter Howey scuffed with fully justified embarrassment in the 79th minute but another goal at the other end always seemed more likely.

Perez twice more denied Fowler, who departed with words of praise from his boss. "To get 30 goals for a third season running is a tremendous tribute to Robbie," Evans said.

"After the week we've had it was important we got the right result today," the Liverpool manager added. "It was a test of character for us."

But it was another test failed by Reid's men. A Liverpool fan when Chris Lawler silenced Roker with the goal that consigned Sunderland to relegation three minutes from the end of the 1969-70 season, he lamented: "We didn't get enough of the ball to put James under pressure."

His team yesterday looked overburdened by average players. With eight thirtysomethings in Sunderland's 16-man squad, Jurassic Park could well be the name of their new home.

Goals: Fowler (33) 0-1; McManaman (48) 0-2; Stewart (53) 1-2.

Sunderland (4-4-1-1): Perez; Hall, Ord, Howey, Kubicki (Quinn, 66); Johnston, Ball, Bracewell, Gray; Waddle; Stewart (Bridges, 77). Substitutes not used: Agnew, Williams, Woods (gk).

Liverpool (3-5-2) James; Kvarme, Wright, Harkness; Jones, Thomas, Redknapp, Barnes, Bjorneye; McManaman, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Berger, Matteo, Owen, Kennedy, Warner (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Man of the match: Fowler.

Attendance: 21,938.