In Pictures: Sunderland 1 Liverpool 0
What is it they say? Life's a beach ball and then your title hopes die?
In addition to the club-crested red beach ball – off which Darren Bent deflected the goal that beat Liverpool at the Stadium of Light on Saturday – the LFC Beach Set advertised online at a reduced price of £10 helpfully includes a towel. Liverpool fans could pretty soon be throwing these in too.
As it is, in the wake of a fourth defeat in nine Premier League games, Jamie Carragher, captain of the crestfallen Reds, can only acknowledge: "We have given ourselves a mountain to climb."
Liverpool only lost two league games last season, when they finished four points short of Manchester United in the title stakes. United happen to be next up for Rafael Benitez's stumbling side on the domestic front, at Anfield next Sunday, following the small matter of the Champions League visit of Lyons tomorrow night.
"There is a long way to go but if we continue losing games it will be the end," Carragher (below) continued. "We can't think about the title right now. We have to forget about that and concentrate on the next league game, which is Manchester United. That will give us a chance to claw some points back. Right now we have to restore our confidence and play much better. We are not playing well and the supporters know that."
The inflatable punched on to the field by a young Liverpool supporter was unquestionably a key factor in their downfall on Wearside; the trajectory of Bent's low fifth-minute drive shifted to the left of a distracted Jose Reina on its way into the visitors' net. By the letter of the law, the Sunderland striker's eighth goal of the season ought not to have been awarded by referee Mike Jones.
The retired official Jeff Winter yesterday said he was "absolutely amazed" by Jones' decision, adding: "The laws of the game state that if there's an outside interference the game has to be stopped."
Nonetheless, as both Carragher and Benitez acknowledged, the beach ball incident was something of an inflatable red herring in the wider scheme of things. "There are no complaints about the goal," Carragher said. "I don't want to take anything away from Sunderland."
His manager added: "We had bad luck with the goal but the team were not doing well. That is something we have to fix. We will have to improve."
Liverpool, minus the injured Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, played more like makeweights than heavyweight title contenders. They only troubled Craig Gordon in the final 10 minutes, the Scotland goalkeeper executing a brilliant double save to deny both Dirk Kuyt and David Ngog.
They were outplayed by Steve Bruce's burgeoning Sunderland side, who are now a place and a point above Liverpool in the table, and who had disruption in their own ranks to overcome on Saturday. Lee Cattermole and Kenwyne Jones were both carried off on a stretcher injured – the former with knee ligament damage, the latter with a twisted knee – and the illness that put paid to George McCartney at half-time meant Anton Ferdinand had to shift to left-back in the second half, with Lorik Cana, Sunderland's swashbuckling Albanian captain, dropping back from central midfield to the centre of defence, where he proceeded to deliver an inspirational performance.
The margin of victory ought to have been more emphatic but Bent – the first Sunderland player to score in five successive top-flight games since Neil Martin in 1967 – spurned a further quartet of clear chances. Still, there are signs of a significant reawakening in this particular corner of the good old hotbed of soccer.
At one point on Saturday, Bruce squared up to Benitez on the touchline. The pair shook hands at the final whistle but, having given Manchester United something of a runaround at Old Trafford in their previous game, Sunderland are standing up to the big boys now. Bruce's men are looking like a Premier League side of some substance. Which is more than can be said of the beach ball boys.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Bardsley, Turner, Ferdinand, McCartney (Henderson, h-t); Malbranque, Cattermole (Zenden, 59), Cana, Reid; Bent, Jones (Campbell, 65). Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), Nosworthy, Da Silva, Healy.
Liverpool (3-4-3): Reina; Agger, Carragher, Skrtel (Voronin, 73); Johnson, Lucas, Spearing (Mascherano, 73), Aurelio; Babel (Ngog, 81), Kuyt, Benayoun. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Insua, Kelly, Riera.
Referee: M Jones (Cheshire).
Booked: Sunderland Cana, Reid; Liverpool Kuyt.
Man of the match: Cana.