Liverpool kept up the pressure on their Barclays Premier League title rivals with a 2-1 win that plunged Sunderland into deeper trouble.
Manchester City's comprehensive victory over champions Manchester United in Tuesday's derby meant that all eyes were on Anfield as Brendan Rodgers' side attempted to respond.
Sitting a point behind City, who now have two matches in hand, and four adrift of Chelsea, it was essential that Liverpool grabbed a seventh successive Barclays Premier League win to stay in touch.
After an opening 30 minutes of few chances, captain Steven Gerrard was on hand to settle the palpable nerves with a stunning free-kick that Vito Mannone could not keep out.
With order restored, Liverpool appeared on course for a comfortable night when Daniel Sturridge grabbed a 20th league goal of the campaign - in the process ensuring that he and Luis Suarez became the first Liverpool duo since Roger Hunt and Ian St John in 1963-64 to pass the mark in one season.
However, Sunderland threatened a twist in the tale when the impressive Ki Sung-Yueng pulled one back with 14 minutes left.
The visitors continued to press forward thereafter but fell short of a leveller that would have taken them to within two points of safety.
The home side looked every bit like a team who had not suffered defeat in 11 Barclays Premier League matches as they bossed the opening exchanges. Yet, for all their attacking verve, Liverpool struggled to fashion clear-cut opening as Sunderland showed great restraint by largely operating with 10 men behind the ball.
Such discipline was severely lacking as the hosts took the lead six minutes before half-time, however. Philippe Coutinho took advantage of Lee Cattermole's heavy touch to nip in and free Suarez, who was clumsily brought down on the edge of the area by Santiago Vergini.
The Argentinian was perhaps fortunate to escape with just a yellow card, although that was scant consolation when Gerrard's subsequent curler proved too powerful for Mannone – who did not help himself with a step to his right just before Gerrard struck the free-kick into the opposite corner.
To their credit, Sunderland almost found an immediate response as Connor Wickham - only recalled from a loan spell at Leeds United this week - saw a deflected effort force a good save from former Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Any hopes of a turnaround were virtually extinguished immediately after the break as Sturridge cut inside Andrea Dossena before seeing his curling effort deflect off Wes Brown and beyond a helpless Mannone.
Buoyed by grabbing his 20th Barclays Premier League goal of the campaign, Sturridge almost added another soon afterwards - only to see his effort hit Suarez.
The game had suddenly taken on and end-to-end nature, with Cattermole and Sturridge rattling the crossbar in quick succession.
Sunderland set up a tense finale as Ki, who impressed having come off the bench, headed home fellow substitute Adam Johnson's corner. But despite their late efforts, the visitors could not fashion a second, as Liverpool held on to three vital points.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers: "It was always going to be difficult game, Sunderland played 3-5-2 and in particular in the first half there was a low block so we had to show our patience but it was another excellent game
"Stevie Gerrard showed wonderful power and technique and then we found our fluency."
"We are clearly a team that is improving, we are second which is great but it's up to other teams to lose. So we will keep working hard.
"I'm not playing it down, I don't play silly mind games, I'm concentrating on my team and Jose Mourinho is saying what I'm saying. If Manchester City win all their games they win the league. It's simple maths."
Sunderland manager Gus Poyet: "We can take a lot from that. Everything that was said before, it was going to be 4, 5, 6, 7 against us. We played a different system and frustrated them for a long time, but this crowd was quiet and they really celebrated at the end which showed it wasn't easy for them."
"We did something nobody expected. The game was set up for a big party with four or five goals after half an hour. The idea was always to stay in the game. But we put Liverpool under pressure and it was tense."
"Now it's West Ham [next Monday] and we need to somehow win the game. I am pretty sure [this will give us confidence]".
|30 Mar 2014||v Spurs (H)|
|06 Apr 2014||v West Ham (A)|
|13 Apr 2014||v Man City (H)|
|20 Apr 2014||v Norwich (A)|
|27 Apr 2014||v Chelsea (H)|
|05 May 2014||v Crystal Palace (A)|