Liverpool can never do things the easy way.
Liverpool were very good in the first half, and it was unfathomable that the half ended 1-0. Well, unfathomable if Liverpool weren't Liverpool and we weren't used to this Liverpool.
Markovic should have won a clear-cut penalty in the 3rd minute. Gerrard had a wicked wide free kick tipped over in the 29th minute. From the resulting corner, Markovic's half-volley rebound cannoned off the woodwork and goalkeeper. Borini rounded the keeper following Can's long ball in the 44th but could only shoot into the side-netting from a narrow angle. Coutinho and Gerrard had half-chances but either mis-kicked or tamely shot wide.
Meanwhile, Sunderland took just one first half shot: a 30-yard free kick from Larsson sent straight at Mignolet.
But no matter how well Liverpool had played, you just knew the second half would be different. It'd see Sunderland attack, it'd see Liverpool sit deeper, and it'd see Liverpool come under threat. It'd evoke memories of the 1-1 horror show which started the 2011-12 campaign. And even though Bridcutt picked up a second yellow in the 49th minute, that's exactly what happened.
It did not help that Lovren replaced Gerrard at halftime, withdrawn as a precaution because of a tight hamstring, Can first switching to attacking midfielder, then right wing-back a few minutes later. I do not know why it wasn't Manquillo, with Markovic shifting to attacking midfielder (as he eventually did). My only guess is that Rodgers hasn't given up on Lovren, even though everyone else has, and is looking for any way to return him to the side. All I know is that it went about as well as you could expect.
Sunderland should have been level five minutes after the sending off, when Johnson, in acres of space, pinged a speculative shot from distance off the crossbar — just like Markovic's in the first half — hit Mignolet, and was somehow cleared behind. I'll churlishly note that the shot came from Liverpool's inside right channel. You know, where Dejan Lovren was playing.
To be fair, that was Sunderland's only threatening opportunity until late. They took just five shots all match, and three came well after the 80th minute. The away side were mostly untroubled in the final 20 minutes, after Balotelli replaced Borini, until injury time. But Sunderland had too much possession, too many set plays, for a side a man down, after Liverpool had been so impressive in the first half. We'd seen Liverpool stupidly relinquish a lead despite being "dominant" far too often this season. It only takes one moment, a moment like Johnson's 54th minute shot.
But Liverpool didn't give them many moments after the 54th-minute fright, and Sunderland couldn't take the few they did.
As influential as Coutinho and Markovic were in the first half, Lucas was in the second half. More of his tackles and clearances came in the opening 45 minutes, but his protection of the back three, work rate, and positioning were vastly more needed with Liverpool under pressure. It's amazing what he can do with a) fresh legs after five days off and b) Henderson as protection. It's utterly insane that we're seeing rumors of a January departure given the state and balance of Liverpool's squad.
But even though it should have been better, it could have been worse. Liverpool got all three points, Liverpool kept a clean sheet. By hook or by crook, by luck or talent.
Liverpool's +16 shot differential was the second-best of the season (behind +20 in the 2-2 draw against Arsenal), and only the second time Liverpool reached that margin away from home under Brendan Rodgers (outshooting Palace 26-10 in last season's 3-3). Liverpool just, you know, still need to get more of those shots on target.
And it's consecutive 1-0 away wins in the league for the first time since 1976 (beating Leicester and Sunderland, coincidentally). Sure, Liverpool have won consecutive away matches an awful lot since then, even kept consecutive away clean sheets an awful lot since then (the last being 3-0 wins at Southampton and United last spring), but the ability to see out close, contentious, frightening games is a good ability to have. And it's an ability that Liverpool need to demonstrate on a consistent basis.