Maria Farrugia was the penalty shoot-out hero as Sunderland Ladies beat Liverpool 4-2 in their final Continental League Cup group match.

The Malta international calmly scored the decisive spot kick to secure the bonus point after the tie finished goalless after 90 minutes.

But, despite the Black Cats finishing second in the table to the Reds with seven points, the result is unlikely to be enough for them to qualify for the quarter finals as best placed runners up.

With Group A wide open, Mel Reay was able to name a strong squad with Charlotte Potts and Abbey Joice – who both missed Sunday’s FA Cup victory over Brighouse Town – returning to the starting XI alongside Grace McCatty who has been unavailable for several weeks due to work commitments.

Following a similar pattern to November’s league encounter which ended in a comfortable win for Liverpool, the visitors controlled possession in the early stages but failed to really test Claudia Moan within the first half an hour.

When they did threaten, they were wasteful in front of goal – first Yana Daniels blazed over Rachel Furness’ dangerous cross from yards out and then Charlotte Wardlaw cleared the goal from the edge of the box.

Sunderland made sure their opponents didn’t have it all their own way, pressing in the final third and creating chances of their own through Farrugia, Joice and Neve Herron who saw long range efforts saved by Charlotte Clark.

After the interval, Liverpool once again set the tempo with Sunderland’s harrying and harassing high up the pitch almost paying off on the hour mark when Farrugia stole the ball from Furness in midfield, drove forward but arrowed her shot just past the far post. Then Eve Blakey, who ploughed a lonely furrow upfront for most of the evening, cut inside on her right foot but she too fired wide of the upright

The away side finished the game strongly and would have claimed all three points if not for an unbelievable goal line clearance from Herron which summed up Sunderland’s determination to hold on to their clean sheet. Rhiannon Roberts’ shot looked destined for the top corner, but the England youth international appeared from nowhere to acrobatically head the ball away from under her own crossbar. Seconds later, Potts turned away Ceri Holland’s follow up with some courageous last ditch defending of her own.

There was still time for Holland to hit the woodwork and Leighanne Robe to flash a speculative 40-yard drive inches over as Liverpool desperately searched for the winning goal but with neither side able to break the deadlock, the game headed to penalties.

Reay shuffled the pack in stoppage and brought on Keira Ramshaw and Emily Scarr for the shootout, with Clarke saving the former’s opening kick. Despite Missy Bo Kearns and Holland’s success from 12 yards, Sunderland scored their remaining four kicks with Farrugia sparking wild celebrations when she coolly found the bottom corner.

Due to results in other groups and with Leicester City and Manchester City still to play each other after Wednesday’s Group B clash was postponed due to COVID reasons, the Black Cats will narrowly miss out on progressing to the knock out stages. However, the season’s target has always been survival and Reay and her side can now focus on cementing their place in the Championship for another season starting with Sunday’s trip to Sheffield United.

Sunderland: Moan; Beer, Potts, McCatty, Griffiths; Herron, Kelly ©, Joice (Ramshaw ’90); Ede (Manders 71’), Farrugia, Blakey (Scarr 90’).

Subs not used: Cowling, McInness, Burt.