Not that it was a convincing victory, Patrik Berger's 85th- minute clincher notwithstanding. Liverpool's last defeat in a league match on Wearside dates back to August 1958 - when goals by Reg Pearce and Don Kitchenbrand earned Sunderland their first win as a Second Division club - but they lived dangerously yesterday. Even without three suspended first-choice players, Sunderland were the better side. Unfortunately for them, and for Peter Reid, a Liverpool supporter as a boy, they were denied any reward - Rigobert Song twice making goal-line clearances and Niall Quinn twice having valid penalty claims come to nought.
It was a defeat that cost Sunderland their place in the top three and ended a run of unbeaten league games at home stretching back 12 months. "It had to come some time," Reid said. "But the only thing I can fault my side for today is their finishing. We played really well today. The lads who came into the side had smashing games."
It was always going to be a test of strength for Sunderland - a test of precisely how much strength they have in depth. Having descended to the bottom of the Fair Play League, they had five players serving suspensions yesterday, among them first team regulars Steve Bould, Stefan Schwarz and Chris Makin. In place of Bould, Craddock, recalled from a loan spell with Sheffield United, joined Paul Butler at the centre of a defence which had tightened significantly since Sunderland's rude awakening in the Premiership at Chelsea back in August.
In 13 league matches since that 4-0 opening-day defeat, Thomas Sorensen had conceded only eight goals - form which earned him his first cap for Denmark, as a substitute for the injured Peter Schmeichel, against Israel in Copenhagen last Wednesday.
The Sunderland goalkeeper was untroubled throughout a tight first half yesterday. It took 27 minutes, in fact, for the first serious threat to materialise at either end, Gavin McCann narrowly missing the target with a swerving 15-yard shot. But Sunderland proceeded to build up an attacking head of steam.
Quinn could hardly have come closer to scoring than he did in the 34th minute. Controlling a lofted ball from Alex Rae on the right edge of the Liverpool area, the big Irishman showed impressive skill in turning to elude Sami Hyypia and deftly chipping a right-foot shot over the diving Sander Westerveld - only to watch in frustration as Song cleared off the line.
There had been more than a suspicion of Hyypia attempting to hold back Quinn and the Finn appeared to make illegal use of his arms again two minutes later. Quinn, in attempting to get his head to a Nicky Summerbee cross, never got off the ground. But in the former kingdom of Northumbria Dermot Gallagher was blind to both offences and Liverpool survived until half-time on level terms.
Not that they were worry-free for very long. One minute into the second- half the outstanding Summerbee crossed from wide on the right and the Liverpool defence could only watch with relief as Kevin Phillips, with the goal at his mercy, headed tamely wide from six yards. The momentum was still firmly with Sunderland and it took a fine diving save from Westerveld to deny them in the 54th minute, the Dutchman flying to his right to push wide Eric Roy's goal-bound shot.
The tide turned against Sunderland in the flashing moment of attacking genius it took Owen to trap a loose ball wide on the left, evade Craddock, and clip the ball over Sorensen. Even then, Reid's men continued to dominate, Roy shooting narrowly wide, Westerveld tipping a Phillips header over his crossbar and Song hacking a Michael Reddy shot off the line in the final minute. The points, however, were in Liverpool's bag with five minutes to play, David Thompson cutting the ball back from the right for Berger to beat Sorensen with a low right-footed drive.
Liverpool's unbeaten Premiership run has stretched to seven matches now, but it was Owen's clinical finish that pleased their manager most of all. "He's been going through a difficult period," Houllier said, "but I always knew he would come back." Not back to his best, it has to be said, but closer to it, certainly.Reuse content