Alonso magic cannot disguise the flaws

Liverpool 1 Sunderland 0
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The Independent Online

The first is Steven Gerrard and the calf injury that forced him to be withdrawn after 55 minutes yesterday. Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, revealed that his captain will almost certainly miss Tuesday's European second leg with CSKA Sofia and will be sent for a scan.

Then there was the defence, which was lucky to keep a clean sheet as plucky Sunderland went so close to underlining their frailties. Benitez's long-held assertion, "I need a defender", was suddenly looking so much more than a smokescreen last night.

And last, but definitely not least for any fans or indeed agents in the Liverpool area, there was the striking issue and the blatant necessity for a new forward. Benitez may continue to deny any interest in Michael Owen, but perhaps he should change his mind after Djibril Cissé fluffed a whole series of chances here.

Mick McCarthy, of course, would snigger at all the above "problems" after seeing his side extend their losing run in the Premiership to 17, but doing so with no little amount of pride, conviction or ill fortune. In truth, the Sunderland manager was in no laughing mood after seeing Andy Welsh sent off for the most minor of crimes in the 74th minute. "Did you see it? Did you think it was a red card?" he asked. "Of course it wasn't. Welshie didn't lash out. He just wouldn't."

Indeed, it was hard to see what had possessed the linesman to instruct Barry Knight to dismiss Welsh. He had merely moved his arm towards Luis Garcia, who, naturally, fell down as if he was Sonny Liston. But it was one of those days for Sunderland. "Who knows what would have happened," said McCarthy, doing everything but spitting red stuff as he said it. "On another day..."

In fact, on most other days in Liverpool's only too recent history, Sunderland would have likely left with a point and that was what Benitez was gleaning satisfaction from after a wholly unsatisfactory performance. That and a quite sumptuous moment from Alonso, who dipped deep into his box of free-kicks with a 25-yard spectacular in the 24th minute.

That was mere recompense, as well, for they had started well enough, with Gerrard's cross-cum-shot touching wood in the third minute and then Fernando Morientes and Bolo Zenden firing headers woefully wide of the target. But these were mere trifles to Cissé's grand souffle in the 19th minute that was to characterise his utter blancmange of an afternoon. How he failed to turn in Zenden's cross three yards from the net will forever flummox all who saw it.

Perhaps it was the confusion of having to play wide right in Benitez's favoured 4-1-4-1 formation, but that was no excuse when Gerrard limped off and he was sent up to partner Morientes. Chances were still thrown aside with gay abandon and if the shot he soared over in the 52nd minute had gone in, after he had ran past the stricken figure of Alan Stubbs then he wouldn't have just been a villain to the home end. "You should always kick it out if someone is injured," admitted Benitez, while all McCarthy would comment was: "Let's just say that we should all be glad it didn't go in."

In pure PR terms that would have been costly, although the foul that had felled Stubbs could so easily have proved doubly so. Gerrard was the miscreant and, as he was already on a yellow, he might well have taken a forced route to the dressing-room. "Maybe it wasn't the daftest decision for his manager to take him off so soon after that," McCarthy said mischievously.

Neither was it when the Spaniard removed Cissé for Milan Baros, weighed down by a "for sale" sign but still eminently preferable to the misfiring Frenchman. His sliced volley and bundled effort of another Zenden cross left Liverpool vulnerable as Sunderland poured forward to close out the second half exactly as they had the first - firmly on top.

But then came Chris Brown's failure to head in a corner that sailed untouched through the Liverpool box, followed by Welsh's baffling injustice and that was that. Seventeen and counting. On this evidence it may just be the Black Cats who are cursed.

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