Liverpool 3 Sunderland 0: Crouch's timely boost for Benitez

Three second-half goals move Liverpool back up to fifth but Black Cats hover dangerously close to drop zone
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The Independent Online

Roy Keane's Manchester United career ended at Anfield, a Steven Gerrard boot to the foot breaking a metatarsal and setting in motion his long, bitter farewell from Old Trafford, so he already knew precisely what it feels like to depart Anfield with a deep sense of hurt.

Nothing changes. A broken bone last time, an unfathomable refereeing decision this, but the pain for Keane was no different as Rob Styles' latest penalty controversy involving Liverpool left the Sunderland manager feeling wronged after the home side's flattering victory, which ended their six-week wait for maximum points in the Premier League.

Styles, who was demoted after awarding Chelsea a penalty at Anfield, following a collision between Florent Malouda and Steve Finnan, during a 1-1 draw last August, ignored strong Sunderland appeals when Jamie Carragher handled Daryl Murphy's strike while the visitors trailed 2-0. It was a clear penalty, but Styles waved play on, prompting an angry response from Keane. He said: "Of course we should have had a penalty, but I don't think we were ever going to get a penalty here today. Rob refereed the Chelsea game here a few months ago and was demoted for a penalty he gave against Liverpool, so even though the boy Carragher held his hands up in the area, we were never going to get it.

"We had [Premier League referee] Howard Webb in at our training ground this week explaining that what he did would be a penalty. Rob Styles gave a penalty against us, against Blackburn this season for exactly the same thing. But we were never going to get a penalty here today. Never."

Carragher, who admitted contact but insisted that it was "not deliberate", escaped on this occasion and he had already played a key role in pushing Sunderland to defeat by teeing up Peter Crouch's 57th minute opener by crossing for the forward.

Crouch's goal, on his first Premier League start since 8 December, sparked Liverpool into life after a dismal first half and instigated the victory that helps alleviate the growing pressure on manager Rafa Benitez.

Whether he likes it or not, his distracting squabbles with, and those between, Liverpool's American co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, have provided a useful smokescreen for Benitez to mask the growing problems on the pitch that have left Liverpool as no-hopers in the race for the Premier League title. That is now a three-way battle while Liverpool must instead repel the advances of Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester City for the fourth and final Champions League spot.

Few words of criticism have been uttered in relation to Benitez, however. Hicks and Gillett have given the club's mutinous supporters the perfect target for their anger and Benitez, despite his team's failure to win in the League since Boxing Day and woeful record of just four home wins in 11 League outings at Anfield prior to this game,retains the unequivocal backing of those on the Kop.

Liverpool's first-half performance hardly suggested an end to their recent poor run, though. Against a Sunderland team prepared to defend doggedly with two solid banks of four, Liverpool lacked the imagination to prise open one of the Premier League's most porous defences. Keane's team, without a win away from Wearside in the League, were clearly aiming to emerge from Anfield with a point.

But their stifling tactics worked in the opening period as Liverpool were limited to half-chances. Only Javier Mascherano, who shot over from 30 yards, and Fernando Torres, whose header forced a save from Craig Gordon, went close to scoring.

The tide turned following Crouch's opener, however, Sunderland's resolute defence crumbled and Torres extended Liverpool's lead 11 minutes later when he scored after a typical display of pace to latch on to Crouch's header. By that stage, Sunderland were in dire need of a route back into the game, but that was denied them when Styles rejected their penalty appeals. And to rub salt into gaping wounds, Gerrard secured a 3-0 victory, from the penalty spot, after a seemingly routine challenge by Nyron Nosworthy on Jermaine Pennant.

"This was an important win for us," said Benitez. "Confidence was low, now this result can be good for everybody. It was important to score the first goal today and to win the game, so 3-0 is a fantastic result. In the first half, Sunderland had more energy and were defending well, but we were controlling the game and attacking, and after Crouch scored the first goal, everybody played better."

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