Liverpool moved the ball around fluently enough, created several chances, possessed a fabulous young winger in Raheem Sterling and even scored a rare goal but something was missing.

If Andy Carroll had been on the pitch rather than nursing an injury at West Ham, Brendan Rodgers's team would surely have secured a much craved victory on one of the more poignant evenings of their long history. Instead they had to make do with a point and the looming prospect of some uncomfortably forensic analysis of the new regime's perceived shortcomings.

"It was an emotional occasion but I thought the performance, our movement, was outstanding," said Rodgers, accentuating the positives. "We looked a threat, players are growing into the team, we're improving all the time. We were terrific."

The only problem is that Liverpool have loaned their only senior outright striker to Upton Park and watching them increasingly mix Rodgers's preferred short passes with some accurate long balls, the folly of Carroll's exit was emphasised.

In many ways it had been a day which belonged to the memory of absent friends. The flags outside the Stadium of Light were at half mast, banners demanded "Justice for the 96" and Liverpool emerged wearing black tracksuit tops emblazoned with that most haunting number.

Rodgers knew that the end of a week in which the prime minister had apologised unequivocally for the events at Hillsborough 23 years ago was the perfect time for his side to record a first League win of the season.

Appearing suitably psyched up, Liverpool started well, their momentum boosted by Sunderland's initial inability to string two passes together. A fluid, essentially 4-2-1-3 visiting formation featuring Jonjo Shelvey as the link between midfield and attack certainly seemed to confuse Martin O'Neill's players.

Gradually though, Steven Gerrard began losing a little positional discipline and, spotting the gaps as England's captain rampaged forward from his supposedly deep role alongside Joe Allen, Sunderland's Jack Colback began initiating the odd home attack.

Even so, Simon Mignolet made some decent saves as his defence were repeatedly mesmerised by Liverpool's movement and positional interchanging. How O'Neill must have wished that a thigh injury had not sidelined Adam Johnson.

At least he had Steven Fletcher on the pitch. Very much against the run of play, the £12m striker scored his third goal in two games. It came at the end of a move started by Colback, continued by Craig Gardner and featuring lax marking from Luis Suárez and, most negligently Glen Johnson. When Gardner, overlapping from right-back, danced around Johnson with embarrassing ease, Pepe Reina could not quite reach his cross and Fletcher pounced to shoot Sunderland ahead.

As Rodgers, unusually, lost his cool and berated Johnson, Liverpool's game went a little flat. It took Sterling and his exciting talents to get them going again and Sunderland's Danny Rose was given a tough time at left-back. How many goals, you wondered, might Carroll have scored in tandem with the 17-year-old?

When Suárez collapsed under John O'Shea's challenge visiting fans appealed for a penalty. Sunderland supporters simply saw a dive and Martin Atkinson, the referee, agreed, booking Suárez. It was the Uruguayan's third yellow card in four League games.

Cutting in on his right foot, Johnson very nearly atoned for the opener with a curving, Mignolet-deceiving, shot but the crossbar came between the full-back and redemption. With Colback, still Sunderland's best player, making things sporadically tough for Liverpool, Rodgers's body language became palpable. Off came Fabio Borini and on went Stewart Downing, the substitute assuming his preferred left side attacking role as Suárez shifted to a more central position – although that did not prevent the latter, bizarrely, taking the odd corner.

Courtesy of a little help from Titus Bramble, Suárez celebrated his relocation by equalising. Sterling crossed, the ball bounced off Bramble's shin and, as the South American's fine volley hit the back of the net, Rodgers relaxed a little.

"Liverpool probably deserved the equaliser," said O'Neill, presumably relieved to see Sebastian Larsson merely booked for a bad tackle on Sterling. "They had a number of chances but didn't take them."