Liverpool’s lack of focus proves costly

There can be only one rational explanation for a Liverpool display of such unadulterated paucity, and it should be a grave cause for concern on the other side of Stanley Park.

It’s the Merseyside derby tomorrow and the team representing the red half of the city must have been saving themselves to help them secure local bragging-rights.

Nicklas Bendtner needed no second invitation to exploit the situation to all but extinguish their vanquished opponents’ largely theoretical Champions League hopes.

Kenny Dalglish, who’s had plenty of experience defending hopeless causes this season, refused to write-off their top four chances just yet, but then again there’s really no need to. Everyone else has already done that for the taciturn Scot, in any case.

Liverpool have qualified for Europe by lifting the Carling Cup, which for them is a good thing, because on this evidence, they’ll struggle to do it through the league after slumping to a third straight top flight defeat for the first time in approaching nine years.

They should be raring to go at Anfield tomorrow after barely breaking sweat. By then, they could trail fourth place by 13 points if Arsenal overcome Newcastle at the Emirates Stadium tonight. Given that, defeat to David Moyes’ side really would apply the coup de grace for such lofty ambitions.

For their part, Sunderland have now won 11 of Martin O’Neill’s 17 games in charge thanks to Bendtner’s close-range mopping-up job after the break. If results go the way of these two sides next weekend, this non-event could be replicated in a Wembley FA Cup semi-final next month. If it is, the Wearside club won’t lose too much sleep after securing one of their most routine victories this season.

Returning old boy Jordan Henderson didn’t seem to want to upset his old club by standing out against them — so he didn’t. Another north-east native, Andy Carroll, reminded us why he’s looked like a £35 million fish out of water with a clueless cameo, Sebastian Coates was unconvincing in defence, and Luis Suarez appeared intent on throwing himself to ground every time a red and white shirt approached.

In a game of few chances, a Craig Gardner-inspired Sunderland took full advantage, deserving a significant slice of luck with their winning goal. From Fraizer Campbell’s shot, the ball found its way to the lurking Bendtner via the post — twice — and the back of Pepe Reina’s head for the Arsenal forward to poke home the fifth goal of his season-long loan.

After conceding Darren Bent’s infamous ‘beachball’ goal here in 2009, these Black Cats appear particularly unlucky for the Spanish keeper, who will no doubt wish to forget his unwitting bout of head tennis meets pinball.

Bendtner didn’t have long to savour his winner, as he was carried off with a knee injury late on in his first Wearside start since being sidelined for a month with a broken cheekbone — which requires him to wear a protective mask in order to play.

Typically, there was little sympathy from his team-mates, and Campbell said: “It must be that mask he wears, it makes him feel like a super hero. When he got carried off, I think he was just tired.”

Bendtner is scheduled for a scan today but doesn’t know if he’ll be fit for Saturday’s FA Cup trip to Everton. “Hopefully I’ll be back soon,” he said.

There’s no masking Liverpool’s short-comings, but Dalglish insisted: “If we could maybe get fourth spot, it would be fantastic.

“We’ll play all the matches, count the points up and see where we finish then.”

Whatever their tally may eventually be, it won’t be enough to ensure the imminent return of Champions League football to Anfield.

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