x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Liverpool look a gift goal in the mouth

But for Dirk Kuyt’s candidate for the strangest goal of the season and a rather more typical Steven Gerrard equaliser, it would have been a third reverse in seven days.

Liverpool // Normality and Liverpool parted company some time ago, but this was a surreal end to an unreal week nonetheless. The memories of Northampton will not be exorcised quickly; not when Liverpool contrive to draw 2-2 at Anfield again. Dissent and disappointment are twin ailments. Before the familiar sight of supporters protesting against Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the owners, there was the demoralising spectacle of Liverpool being outplayed again.

The problems are not confined to the second-string side who were embarrassed by Northampton; Sunderland were tactically superior, more cohesive and more convincing than Roy Hodgson's first X1 for much of the match. But for Dirk Kuyt's candidate for the strangest goal of the season and a rather more typical Steven Gerrard equaliser, it would have been a third reverse in seven days. As it is, the loss of two points indicates that securing a Champions League place is ever more unlikely.

Gifted an early goal, Liverpool failed to capitalise. They had neither the ruthlessness nor the confidence to sustain that fine start and, as the match progressed, their reliance on individual inspiration was apparent. It yielded an equaliser when Fernando Torres provided a fine impression of a right winger, bending a ball in for Gerrard, arriving with dynamism, to head beyond Simon Mignolet. It was altogether more conventional than their first goal, instigated by Torres, allying speed of thought with his pace, he reacted when Michael Turner backheeled the ball towards Mignolet.

While Sunderland assumed the central defender was letting the goalkeeper take the free kick they had been awarded, Torres took the view that Turner had restarted play. He advanced towards goal, hesitated and then passed to Kuyt, who scored with ease. "A piece of quick thinking on the part of Torres and Kuyt," Hodgson said. Steve Bruce disagreed. "It was 25 yards from the incident from where the free kick should have been taken," the Sunderland manager said. "The referee had his back to it. He's got it wrong."

Sunderland's anger was only alleviated a little when the referee's next decision favoured them. The excellent Ahmed Elmohamady's cross hit the raised arm of Christian Poulsen. Darren Bent drilled the resulting penalty under Pepe Reina. "I don't subscribe to accidental handballs," Hodgson said. "For me, penalties should have to be intentional." Being dependent upon one player for goals is not confined to Liverpool. Sunderland's seventh, and Bent's fifth, league strike of the season followed when he headed in Nedum Onuoha's cross. A dawdling Glen Johnson was defeated by Bent before Reina.

Following a high-class display against Arsenal in last week's 1-1 draw, Sunderland could again count themselves unfortunate to emerge with only a point. Jordan Henderson showed assurance in midfield, the much-mocked Titus Bramble defiance in defence. "All we are going to talk about now is this stupid goal," lamented Bruce. "The team performance was fantastic." It could have yielded more. Hodgson argued that an early, and classy, Torres goal should not have been disallowed for offside and there was a late siege, with substitutes David Ngog and Daniel Agger almost scoring in added time.

The result leaves Liverpool in 15th place. "I don't think we are playing like a team in fourth or fifth place at the moment," Hodgson admitted. They are not. The concern is that they haven't been for 13 months. sports@thenational.ae