Liverpool 0 Sunderland 0
Jurgen Macho made a string of superb saves today to keep Liverpool in table-topping Arsenal’s shadow.
Sunderland’s Austrian shot-stopper was bombarded with 24 efforts at goal. But he duly kept out those he needed to of the 10 which were on target, having gone into this Barclaycard Premiership fixture knowing Mart Poom has been drafted in from Derby as back-up.
But he made a strong claim to hold on to the jersey, with Thomas Sorensen and Thomas Myhre sidelined through injury.
Macho started the season as number three goalkeeper and has grown in stature.
Liverpool were hoping to bounce back after the disappointment of Basle in midweek when they exited the Champions League.
They knew victory today would take them back to the top – but Macho had other ideas.
England midfielder Steven Gerrard had to settle for a place on the Liverpool bench – and he was not called on, having been publicly criticised by manager Gerard Houllier for his performance last week.
He was replaced in Switzerland by Salif Diao, who got his reward by returning to the starting line-up.
John Arne Riise was also banished to the bench, with Markus Babbel making his first Premiership start for the club in 15 months after recovering from serious illness.
Joachim Bjorklund returned to the Sunderland defence in place of Stephen Wright, who missed the game through suspension.
Liverpool showed their intent in the first minute via a move which was to sum up the entire 90.
Danny Murphy picked out Emile Heskey, who turned quickly and tried to cross into the area only for the ball to come back off Jody Craddock.
The Sunderland defender then deflected Heskey’s fierce drive to safety after Diao had played the ball through.
Liverpool should have taken the lead after six minutes when Babbel got on the end of Murphy’s cross three yards out.
He seemed certain to mark his return with a goal but instead hammered a shot over the top.
Sunderland again found themselves on the back foot when Michael Owen skipped away from Bjorklund, only to send a tame effort into Macho’s arms.
Murphy sent a shot over the top before clipping the bar with a stunning drive from the edge of the area.
Diao latched on to the loose ball but failed to find the target from a good position.
Liverpool continued to dominate, and Dietmar Hamann rattled a shot wide after Murphy’s free-kick had been blocked.
Macho made a breath-taking save from Owen in the 27th minute when he turned away the England striker’s header after a free-kick from Murphy.
Liverpool were having the majority of possession, and Jamie Carragher got away down the left only for his cross to evade both Heskey and Owen.
Hamann then laid the ball into the path of Owen, who curled in a shot from 25 yards which went narrowly wide of the post.
Macho made another marvellous save from Murphy in the 35th minute after Owen laid the ball into his path.
Liverpool captain Sami Hyypia got clear at the far post when Murphy delivered an inswinging free-kick – but Macho collected his header without difficulty.
The home side began the second half brightly.
Diao released Smicer, but he was crowded out. Then Murphy sent in an inswinging corner from the left only for Gavin McCann to clear the ball to safety.
Sunderland were defending in numbers, and their collective work-rate must have pleased Wilkinson.
Former Liverpool defender Phil Babb and Northern Ireland international George McCartney were giving sound displays at the back.
Smicer was wasteful when Diao laid the ball back into the Czech Republic midfielder’s path, his shot going wide.
Wilkinson then made a tactical switch in the 66th minute, with Paul Thirlwell replacing Kevin Phillips.
A minute later Houllier also switched things around, bringing on Riise and El Hadji Diouf for Smicer and Carragher.
Diouf almost found the target in the 75th minute when he got on the end of Murphy’s corner.
He powered in a header only for it to be deflected away by one of his team-mates.
A minute later another Murphy corner caused Sunderland problems. Diao got clear of his marker but headed wide.
Macho then somehow managed to get up and tip over a header from Murphy in the 84th minute, following a corner from Riise.
It all meant Sunderland maintained their revival under Howard Wilkinson and are now unbeaten in five games.