Darren Bent staked a further claim for a place in England's World Cup squad as Sunderland heaped further misery on Liverpool.
However, he did so in controversial circumstances as the visitors were left fuming over the fifth-minute strike which secured the Black Cats' first victory over a 'top four' team since their return to the Barclays Premier League.
Bent's eighth goal of the season came when his shot was deflected past goalkeeper Pepe Reina by a red beach ball which had been thrown onto the pitch, although referee Mike Jones had little option but to award the goal.
But if the visitors felt aggrieved at the manner in which their third successive defeat in all competitions was sealed, they could have few complaints about the result in front of a crowd of 47,327 at the Stadium of Light.
With the injured Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres missing, they were a shadow of the side which pushed Manchester United so close last season as they slipped to their fourth league defeat of the campaign despite a late, late rally.
After their side's heroics at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, when only a late Anton Ferdinand own goal gave the reigning champions a point, the Wearside faithful arrived believing a win over one of the Premier League's traditional powers was a distinct possibility.
And if they needed further confirmation that it could be their day, they had to wait only five minutes.
There was nothing fortunate about the way Lee Cattermole and Andy Reid combined to open up the Reds down the right, and when the Irishman picked out leading scorer Bent beyond the far post, fate intervened.
Reina thought he had the striker's shot covered and could only look on in horror when it hit the beach ball and flew past him into the net.
Sunderland sensed an opportunity and could have been out of sight by half-time.
Bent might have completed a hat-trick but headed a 22nd-minute Reid cross straight at Reina and then glanced Phil Bardsley's driven ball wide of the far post seven minutes before the break.
Liverpool repeatedly found themselves under pressure as Reid, Cattermole and Steed Malbranque got forward to support strikers Bent and Kenwyne Jones as a back three of Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger were swamped by red and white shirts.
But they managed to survive further mishap and gradually eased their way back into the game, although without ever putting Craig Gordon's goal under extreme pressure.
The Scotland international had to block Ryan Babel's 13th-minute shot on the turn at close quarters and was happy to see Fabio Aurelio's 27th-minute free-kick fly wide, but he was otherwise largely untroubled.
Bruce made a change at the break when his only specialist left-back, George McCartney, failed to re-appear, prompting a reshuffle.
Ferdinand moved across from centre-half as Lorik Cana dropped into central defence to accommodate teenage midfielder Jordan Henderson.
The newcomer almost made his mark within two minutes when his shot was blocked by Carragher, in the eyes of the home side with his arm, but Mr Jones waved play on.
Reina kept his side in it with 55 minutes gone when he blocked Bent's effort after the striker had run onto Jones' pass and rounded him.
The goalkeeper needed the help of the woodwork six minutes later after Bent capitalised on more poor defending, but saw his shot come back off the foot of the post.
Bruce and Benitez became embroiled in an angry touchline spat as the injured Jones was treated at length on the pitch before, like Cattermole minutes earlier, leaving on a stretcher.
Malbranque was denied by Carragher's last-ditch block but Yossi Benayoun squandered a glorious opportunity to level two minutes later when he fired high and wide from 16 yards.
Benitez threw on strikers Andriy Voronin and David Ngog in a desperate effort to rescue a point, and deep into seven minutes of stoppage time Gordon had to make a fine double save from Dirk Kuyt and Ngog to deny Liverpool an undeserved point.