Sunderland 0, Liverpool 2: Progress on the road has Benitez looking forward

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The Independent Online

Liverpool will not be the last team to win on Wearside this season and victory against Roy Keane's naïve charges is no true indication of a title challenge to come. However, given his team's debilitating habit of surrendering points on the road last season, it was no surprise that a bullish Jose Reina pointed to this comfortable win as evidence of a club reborn.

Mali midfielder Mohamed Sissoko's first career goal outside European competition, and the 7,000th Liverpool have scored in league football, ensured this match would be inked into Anfield's history books. Triumphing in the absence of Steven Gerrard, and in the face of potentially serious injuries to central defenders Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher, was cause for renewed confidence.

However, of greatest significance to Reina, the Spanish international goalkeeper, was the result itself. Christmas was only a fortnight away when Liverpool won their first Premiership fixture away from home last season. A paltry return of two points from a possible 21 in the previous seven fixtures ruined any hopes of a League Championship and a frustrating campaign of catch-up ensued.

"We knew that we needed to start well at the start of this season in order for us to be real contenders," Reina said. "Little by little, step by step, we are making things easier and we have to keep winning with a mentality like this. Our mistake last year was the beginning of the season and you cannot win a title with this kind of start. Maybe things are changing."

Reina's optimism was echoed by fellow countryman and Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez. "The difference this season away from home is twofold," he said, after Sissoko and the outstanding Andrei Voronin saw off a spirited, yet limited Sunderland. "We are stronger. As a squad we are better. We are more attacking this season, but that is because we have more options."

Fortunately for Benitez his options extend beyond a powerful forward line. Both Hyypia, who suffered a suspected broken nose at the Stadium of Light, and Carragher, affected by a broken rib, are expected to miss tomorrow night's Champions League qualifier against the French club, Toulouse. Benitez possesses the quality cover to cope with such setbacks but the same cannot be said for Roy Keane.

One of the Irishman's proudest boasts last season was that his title-winning team never lost three successive league games but back-to-back defeats against Wigan Athletic and Liverpool suggest that record is about to be shattered. It is far easier to bounce back at Barnsley than it is at Manchester United and an outstanding career at Old Trafford will count for nothing when Sunderland's manager returns to the scene of so many former glories next weekend. Keane will expect no favours and be granted none; on Saturday's evidence the master has little to fear from his apprentice.

Further signings are a prerequisite if the Black Cats are to progress. Southampton forward Kenwyn Jones and the former Leeds United defender Ian Harte are hardly the stellar acquisitions Sunderland require if they are to build a platform for Premiership safety. However, an ebullient Keane remains remarkably upbeat.

"I am genuinely pleased with all the players," he said, after goalkeeper Craig Gordon prevented an embarrassing rout with a series of fine saves to deny the Liverpool strikeforce. "You have to remember we have lots of young players. It takes seven or eight games for any team to get in the swing of things in this league."

Most managers could count themselves fortunate to be given such an extended run of games in the fickle world of the Premiership but Keane, of course, is not most managers. Losing to Liverpool is no disgrace and losing his nerve is not in the make-up of Sunderland's untroubled saviour.

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