It was not a commanding performance and the overwhelming reaction to the final whistle against a relegation-threatened side was relief – but relief laced with three points for Liverpool. At this stage, and given the marker laid down by Manchester City at Old Trafford 24 hours earlier, that is what matters. The test of Anfield's collective heart rate has commenced.

Sunderland were obstinate opponents and it was to their credit, rather than Liverpool's fault, that the free-flowing, free-scoring form of Luis Suárez, Daniel Sturridge and co was often contained. Not even Brendan Rodgers's team can swat everyone aside with ease. The visitors almost changed fortunes at both ends of the table when Ki Sung-yueng scored with a 76th-minute header and John O'Shea rose to meet Adam Johnson's free-kick with seconds remaining. A title challenge flashed before Anfield's eyes. The ball flashed across goal and Liverpool held out.

The merits of Liverpool's seventh successive league win were not in dispute. An emphatic free-kick from Steven Gerrard and the 20th Premier League goal of the season for Daniel Sturridge established a deserved lead that, at 2-0, promised more. Sunderland responded well and the belated introduction of Ki and Johnson spread anxiety throughout the Anfield ranks. "Liverpool were tense, their fans were tense," Gus Poyet said. It is a feeling Liverpool may have to become accustomed to over the final seven games of the season.

"It is about reinforcing the need for calmness," was Rodgers's take on dealing with title pressure. "We reinforce to the players the message about dominating the ball. We were the dominant team but no matter how dominant you are when it gets to 2-1 it is going to be tight for that last 10 minutes or so. Our idea is to stay calm under pressure and it is important they can think clearly under pressure. It always gets hairy when it gets to 2-1 and it means so much to you.

"For us there is not the expectancy this year. I think people looked at us and thought we would tail off. The pressure is on City with the squad they have and the money they've spent and on Chelsea given how dominant they have been for a number of years. The pressure we have is for ourselves, because we are Liverpool and we want to be winners. We are on that path."

Gerrard sent Liverpool en route to second place in the table just as their struggle with the final ball and in front of Sunderland's 3-4-1-2 formation was beginning to spread unease around Anfield. The contest was brought to life by the first penetrating pass of the match when Philippe Coutinho dispossessed Lee Cattermole and split the visitors' rearguard with a precision ball into Suárez. The Liverpool striker sensed danger the moment Coutinho won possession and was clear of O'Shea and Santiago Vergini as the Brazilian's pass arrived, only to be sent sprawling by the Argentina defender's outstretched leg.

With no obvious covering defender – Wes Brown was catching up with play when the foul was committed – a straight red seemed inevitable. The referee, Kevin Friend, showed only yellow but Anfield's anger evaporated when Gerrard drilled the free-kick beyond a non-existent wall and into the top corner from 20 yards. "No more free-kicks for you," he told Suárez amid the celebrations. Oblivious to one reprieve, Vergini invited a second yellow card with a lazy trip on Suárez shortly afterwards. Again Friend proved to be just that for the Sunderland defender.

More of the same but with greater purpose in attack may have been the gist of Poyet's half-time message but it was undermined three minutes after the restart when Sturridge struck. The Liverpool striker was afforded far too much space on the corner of the Sunderland area by Andrea Dossena as he collected Jordan Henderson's pass. Sturridge was even shown inside on to his left foot by the former Anfield defender and obliged with a shot that deflected off Brown and left Vito Mannone rooted to the spot.

The England international has scored 30 league goals for Liverpool in 37 games, reaching the total quicker than any player in the club's illustrious history for the past 118 years. George Allan, in 1896, got there in fewer games. In the process, Sturridge joined the 28-goal Suárez in passing the 20 mark , the first time two players have reached that target in the same season since the title-winning campaign of 1963-64. Ian St John and Roger Hunt were the last pair to score over 20 for Liverpool, a remarkable wait considering what Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish, John Aldridge, John Barnes and Peter Beardsley achieved at Anfield.

Sunderland did not go quietly. Cattermole struck the bar from Johnson's lay-off, so too Sturridge at the opposite end, before Johnson's corner bounced through the Liverpool goalmouth and Ki scored with a diving header at the back post. Apprehension mounted but Liverpool's title pursuit could not be derailed.