For Rafael Benitez, life was a beach yesterday on Wearside. Well, a beach ball – which ultimately may or may not be credited with the goal that left Liverpool and their manager suffering the huge deflation of a fourth Premier League defeat of the season.
Five minutes into a contest that the Reds dared not lose at Sunderland's rocking home ground, Darren Bent swung his right boot and smacked a low drive that hit a red beach ball positioned in front of Pepe Reina on the six yard line on its way into the net.
The shot might well have been a scoring one in any case, but the ball – the match ball, that is – clearly altered direction. The Liverpool goalkeeper was livid, turning to whack the beach ball into the crowd before racing from his goal to appeal to the referee's assistant.
His protests came to nought. Video footage showed that the offending article had been teed up and punched on to the field of play by a red-haired, and subsequently red-faced, youngster sitting in the front row of the Liverpool supporters' section.
It was Bent's eighth goal of the season, making him joint top of the Premier League scoring charts with Fernando Torres, and it proved sufficient to deal another blow the title ambitions of Benitez, who was involved in a heated touchline spat with Sunderland manager Steve Bruce midway through the second-half.
Minus the injured Torres and Steven Gerrard, Liverpool finished without a point for the fourth time in the current campaign. Last season they lost twice and still could not catch Manchester United, whom they entertain next Sunday.
They are now a point behind a burgeoning Sunderland side who put down a marker with a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford a fortnight ago and backed up that impressive performance with what was only the club's second home win against Liverpool in 51 years.
It helped that the visitors were without their two major players but Sunderland had to overcome disruption of their own, Lee Cattermole and Kenwyne Jones being taken off injured and Anton Ferdinand having to move to left-back after George McCartney failed to make it beyond half-time.
Their performance was typified by their captain, Lorik Cana. Fast becoming a cult hero on Wearside, the Albanian midfielder dropped back to the centre of defence to fill the breach left by Ferdinand's switch and his swashbuckling play helped to resist a late spell of concerted pressure by a Liverpool side who started with Javier Mascherano and Emiliano Insua on the bench and with the 20-year-old Jay Spearing making his debut in midfield.
The Black Cats got their claws into the opposition from the start, Andy Reid firing a warning shot across the bows and then skipping free on the right and cutting the ball back for Bent to score.
Liverpool gained a measure of composure thereafter with Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun at the hub of some slick approach play. They failed to register a shot on target, though, and Bent might have delivered a telling blow before the interval had he made the most of two clear heading opportunities that came his way.
The Sunderland striker might have put the outcome beyond doubt before the final quarter, too, but when he was attempting to round Reina, the Liverpool goalkeeper managed to claw away his low shot, and then after beating the Spaniard to a loose ball Bent fired a low drive against the left post and wide.
At the other end, the Sunderland goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, had no saves to make until the final 10 minutes. But then the Scotland international performed heroically, making a superb double stop to thwart Kuyt and Liverpool's late substitute David Ngog.
Haven't we seen this before?
In January 2008, Manchester City cursed their fans' balloons when Michael Ball was wrong-footed in an FA Cup fourth-round tie at Sheffield United. Blades winger Lee Martin's cross struck a balloon on its way, leaving Ball kicking clear air and allowing Luton Shelton to put United on the way to a 2-1 win. Joe Hart was left angrily bursting all the remaining balloons.
Referee: Mike Jones
Man of the match: Cana
Match rating: 8/10