LONDON (Reuters) - Liverpool stayed firmly in the hunt for a first league title in 24 years as superb strikes from Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge fired them to a 2-1 win over an obdurate Sunderland side at Anfield on Wednesday.
The Merseyside club's seventh successive Premier League victory, achieved without the swaggering attacking play that has lit up their recent performances, moved them back ahead of Manchester City into second place one point behind Chelsea.
After struggling to get into their stride against a stubborn Sunderland rearguard, a powerful Gerrard free kick and a curled effort from Sturridge earned Liverpool a two-goal advantage before Ki sung-Yueng pulled one back 14 minutes from time to ensure a nervy end to the game.
"You have to give credit to Sunderland, they have come to make it difficult for us, they were difficult to break down," Liverpool captain Gerrard told Sky Sports.
"We need to learn that when we go two goals ahead we can't concede. We need to hold on and pass it better."
Defeat left struggling Sunderland three points adrift of safety in 18th place in the relegation battle as West Ham United moved further clear of danger with a 2-1 home win over 10-man Hull City.
The east London club suffered the ignominy of being booed despite taking all three points, heightening the tension between manager Sam Allardyce and the Upton Park crowd.
The confidence that is bubbling to the surface in Liverpool was typified by the hordes of flag-waving fans and puffing plumes of red smoke that greeted the Liverpool team bus as it pulled up at an Anfield sizzling with anticipation.
A lack of belief in Sunderland's ranks, however, meant manager Gus Poyet parked the bus on the edge of their penalty area.
Murmurs of frustration began to spread through the stadium as Sunderland reached the half-hour mark without being breached as the hosts failed to create a noteworthy chance.
Yet Liverpool's patient probing eventually told when the visitors conceded a free kick on the edge of their area with defender Santiago Vergini perhaps lucky to escape a red card for bringing down Luis Suarez.
Suarez and Daniel Agger stood poised over the ball before Gerrard made a late dash and curled his effort past Sunderland keeper Vito Mannone into the top corner.
If the first half was largely frustrating for the hosts, the second began with an early goal that lifted the tension.
Strurridge was allowed the space to cut into the Sunderland box on his favourite left foot and curled a superb effort into the top corner to become the second Liverpool player to reach 20 league goals for the season after Suarez.
It was a goal that allowed Liverpool to cut loose but they could not muster a third goal and out of nowhere with time running out, Sunderland dragged themselves back into the contest.
After the bar was rattled at both ends by Sunderland's Lee Cattermole and Sturridge, the visitors reduced the deficit when Ki headed in Adam Johnson's corner with Liverpool's suspect defence creaking again.
Having never looked under threat, the final minutes proved a nerve-jangling finale for the home supporters with former Manchester United defender John O'Shea wasting a great chance by heading wide from close range.
Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers became the latest of the title-chasing managers to play down their chances, pointing out that Manchester City, who are three points behind Chelsea with two games in hand, hold their destiny in their own hands.
"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," he said.
Poyet took plenty of positives from the defeat heading into his team's next game against West Ham.
"I would like to start the game now with same names that finished with that tempo and belief," he said. "If we don't believe in ourselves in the way we finished today then we make a massive mistake."
On the back of three straight defeats, West Ham were given a controversial early boost when referee Mike Dean pointed to the spot and sent off Hull keeper Allan McGregor after a coming together with Mohamed Diame.
Back-up keeper Steve Harper was brought on but his first act was to pick the ball out of his net after Mark Noble's spot- kick.
Despite being a man down Hull drew level through Nikica Jelavic, who deflected Tom Huddlestone's free kick past a wrong-footed Adrian.
Parity was short-lived, however, as James Chester conceded a comical own goal when his attempted clearance flew into the top corner off his knee.
Allardyce's relationship with the West Ham fans is looking strained, with a section of the home support venting their frustration at the home side's struggles.
"I've never been in a place where I won and got booed," Allardyce said.
"I started at 16, got into the first team at 18 and I'm 59 now and I have never been in place where we have won and got booed."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)