High-flyers hang on to deny Poyet's men.
Sunderland saw a brave comeback fall just short as they suffered a narrow defeat at high-flying Liverpool.
Steven Gerrard fired the Reds into the lead with a powerful free-kick just before the break after Santiago Vergini felled Luis Suarez on the edge of the box.
Daniel Sturridge made it two early to open up a comfortable home lead in the opening minutes of the second half, but Sunderland kept their nerve and responded when Ki Sung-Yueng headed in at the back post 14 minutes from the end.
The South Korean's goal - his fourth of the season - set up a grandstand finish as the visitors came close to equalising through John O'Shea's late header before their comeback eventually came to naught.
Liverpool – the division's highest scorers – were on the rack towards the end as Gus Poyet's introduction of substitutes Ki and Adam Johnson just after the hour swung the game back towards Sunderland with the visitors 2-0 down.
The Uruguayan will take plenty of positives from his side's performance in the last 20 minutes as they gave Liverpool a real scare having clambered their way back into the game.
Poyet – shorn of the suspended Marcos Alonso and the ineligible Fabio Borini – made five changes to his side as he looked to shake things up, including a start for Connor Wickham on his return from a loan spell at Leeds.
Vergini came in as a third centre-half, while Emanuele Giaccherini also won a recall alongside countryman Andrea Dossena, appearing against his former club.
The returning Lee Cattermole rounded out a new-look Sunderland side, with Johnson, Ki and Jack Colback all dropping to the bench.
Meanwhile former Black Cats Simon Mignolet and Jordan Henderson both started against their old employers as Liverpool looked to close the gap on league leaders Chelsea to just a point.
The hosts – in a rich vein of form - predictably started well, with the ever-dangerous Suarez threatening after seven minutes when his free-kick from the edge of the box fizzed beyond the angle of post and bar.
Playing five at the back, Sunderland set out to make life difficult for Brendan Rodgers' side and break when possible, and Liam Bridcutt fired over soon after Suarez's near miss when he profited from good play by Phil Bardsley to advance into a shooting position 25 yards out.
With Cattermole and Bridcutt sitting in front of the back five, Liverpool had to work their way through a sea of yellow shirts and both Joe Allen and Suarez curled wide from opposite corners of the box.
But just when it looked as if the sides might go in level at half time, Liverpool went ahead through long-serving captain Gerrard.
The home side were screaming for a red card when Vergini brought down Suarez on the edge of the box, and although the Argentine defender stayed on the pitch with a booking to his name, Gerrard stepped up to smash home the free-kick.
Now Sunderland were forced to look to break out in response, and former Sunderland man Mignolet kept the scores level with a neat save just before the break after Wickham's shot took a nick off Martin Skrtel.
But the hosts struck again just three minutes into the second half – Sturridge receiving possession from Henderson and seeing his shot flash past Vito Mannone via a deflection off the covering Wes Brown.
The former Chelsea striker might have had a second goal soon afterwards but his goalbound shot was accidentally blocked by Suarez, who couldn't quite squeeze a backheel past Mannone at the near post.
Suarez then fired wide with strike partner Sturridge in a good position before both Johnson and Ki entered the fray just after the hour – Wickham and Giaccherini making way.
And the changes certainly had an effect as Johnson saw a low shot swallowed up by Mignolet before Cattermole came agonisingly close to his first Sunderland goal 19 minutes from time.
Johnson's brilliant first-time cut-back found the midfielder in space, and Cattermole got plenty of power behind his shot only to see his effort come back off the crossbar.
Sturridge replied in equal measure when he rattled the bar with a curling shot, but Sunderland were on the front foot as Ki saw an effort deflected over.
The visitors' breakthrough came from the resulting corner, delivered by Johnson – Ki stealing in at the back post to score with an emphatic diving header.
And the closing stages were all Sunderland as a nervous Liverpool side looked to hold on.
Colback replaced Dossena for the final minutes as Poyet's side chased a share of the spoils.
Their best chance came just a minute from the end of normal time when Johnson clipped in a free-kick from the left, but O'Shea's header ran just wide of the far post with Sunderland so close to a memorable turnaround.
- Sturridge (Sterling)
- Vergini Yellow
- Dossena (Colback)
- Bardsley Yellow
- Wickham (Ki)
- Giaccherini (Johnson)