Mathematical possibility may suggest otherwise, but this was surely the day Liverpool's already slender hopes of Champions League qualification finally turned to dust. Up against a Sunderland side weakened by the suspension of two key players, Stéphane Sessègnon and Lee Cattermole, Kenny Dalglish's team tested the home goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, with one shot on target. Considering the array of expensive talent on view for the visitors, indictments do not come much more damning.
"I don't think it was much of a game," said a downbeat Dalglish. "I don't think there was much in it." Asked if his side's position, 10 points behind fourth-placed Arsenal, meant the top four was no longer a realistic target, Liverpool's manager demurred. "I'll say what I said in August," he said. "At the end of the season we'll count our points and see where we are."
They will not accrue as many as expected if too many more 90 minutes contain as many missed connections and concession of possession as this one. When it came to the latter, Charlie Adam was the biggest culprit. Not content with showing his ponderous side, the Liverpool midfielder also gave away a series of needless fouls, eight before the interval.
If Adam represented one weak link in Dalglish's armoury, Sebastian Coates looked like another, the centre-half displaying his inexperience against Nicklas Bendtner. But while the Dane – who scored Sunderland's winner before later being taken off on a stretcher with a knee injury that threatens his participation in next Saturday's FA Cup sixth round tie at Everton – delighted in stealing in behind Coates on the blindside, such manoeuvres invariably ended with no one around to latch on to the resultant cross or lay off.
If Bendtner, like his Sunderland team-mate James McClean, were two of the few to impress on a badly cutting up pitch, Craig Bellamy was arguably the best individual – albeit one betrayed by less inventive colleagues. Time after time Bellamy got beyond Phil Bardsley only to find Luis Suárez and company unequal to his deliveries. With Suárez struggling in the face of the highly efficient defensive barrier provided by John O'Shea and Michael Turner, the puzzle was why Dalglish did not swiftly introduce Andy Carroll in a bid to ruffle O'Shea, especially.
With Sessègnon sidelined, Bendtner and Fraizer Campbell formed Martin O'Neill's new-look attacking partnership and, in the 57th minute, they answered lingering questions about their compatibility. First Campbell did well to resist the attentions of Martin Skrtel before unleashing a shot from 20 yards out that rebounded up off both the base of a post and Pepe Reina. Before Reina could rally, Bendtner had half-volleyed the ball beyond him from close range.
Adam subsequently shot wide after a cross by Jordan Henderson, who, despite much typically energetic endeavour, would surely have hoped to have made more of an impact against his old club.
It was Adam, though, who rightly made way when Dalglish finally liberated Carroll, along with fit-again Steven Gerrard, from the bench. That Bellamy – who looked far from happy at seeing his number flash up on the electronic board – was the other Liverpool player withdrawn presumably had more to do with his troublesome knees than the threat he posed Sunderland.
O'Neill responded to Dalglish's little reshuffle by replacing Campbell with David Vaughan and switching to a five-man midfield. By succeeding in starving Carroll of service, this switch highlighted Liverpool's lack of a proper cross-supplying winger. When Henderson eventually made way for precisely such a player, Stewart Downing, it was too late. Indeed, an enduring Merseyside mystery is why Carroll and Downing are so rarely on the pitch together.
The sole blemish on Sunderland's afternoon was Bendtner's injury, sustained after a challenge that resulted in Skrtel being booked. With the break in play suiting O'Neill's team, it initially seemed the Arsenal loanee might be indulging in a little time-wasting, but he was carried off with his leg in a brace and, afterwards, Sunderland's manager expressed concern.
"Nicklas is a worry for next weekend," said O'Neill. "He's twisted his knee and we're not certain about it. It's pretty sore and there's a bit of swelling. We won't know anything for 48 hours." With Bendtner having hit decent form over the past couple of weeks, Everton will be hoping the prognosis is disappointing.