09 March 2012

Liverpool at Sunderland 03.10.12

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 08.13.11
2-0 Liverpool (a) 03.20.11
2-2 (h) 09.25.10
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.28.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Arsenal (h); 2-2 Cardiff aet (n) [3-2 on pens]; 6-1 Brighton (h)
Sunderland: 1-1 Newcastle (a); 0-4 West Brom (a); 2-0 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Bellamy, Suarez 6; Carroll 3; Adam, Gerrard, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson, Kuyt 1
Sunderland: Sessegnon 6; Larsson 5; Bendtner 4; Gardner, McClean 3; Ji, Richardson, Vaughan 2; Bramble, Brown, Campbell, Colback, Elmohamady, Wickham 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Coates Enrique
Henderson Spearing Adam
Suarez Carroll Downing

I still want to see more of the 4-2-1-3/4-3-3 style formation used against Brighton in the FA Cup, although that's looking more and more like a one-off. It puts Adam in a three-man midfield while still partnering Suarez and Carroll, but with additional attacking support in Downing, Kuyt or Bellamy. However, Liverpool subsequently played 4-4-2 against Cardiff, and used a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 hybrid against Arsenal last week. The fact we're still doing this formation guessing game so deep into the season is more a sign that Dalglish still doesn't know Liverpool's strongest XI or formation – although injuries have certainly played their part – more than a sign of Liverpool's versatility.

Much internet ink has been spilled about the Carragher v Coates debate in Agger's absence. I've said my piece, and hope Coates gets the start tomorrow. Carragher remains more likely to start on Tuesday because it's a Merseyside derby and he's Carragher, but Coates needs chances. In addition to Agger's broken rib, Gerrard and Johnson still have injury concerns. Gerrard's the bigger doubt, mostly due to his recent injury history; his absence would bring either Spearing or ex-Sunderland midfielder Henderson into the lineup. Potentially both if Liverpool go with the above formation. If I had to guess – which I do in lieu of concrete statements from Dalglish; we just know both trained this week – I'd assume Gerrard will be on the bench, ready to start in the derby, with Johnson back in the fold tomorrow. Kelly continues to be Johnson's obvious replacement at right-back.

However, having the derby three days after this fixture may demand more changes than we've seen recently. Liverpool haven't played two matches in a week in more than a month, since facing United and Wolves in the last week of January. All matches seem equally important at this stage, but a Merseyside derby probably takes precedence over a trip to the Northeast at this stage. Because it's a Merseyside derby. If Liverpool ring changes in one of the two, it'll probably be tomorrow.

Sunderland have won ten, drawn three, and lost four since Martin O'Neill took over in early December. The Mackems were 16th when Steve Bruce was sacked and now sit in 12th, but are just five points behind seventh-place Liverpool. Early impressive results have settled back toward reality, winless in the league in the last month – losing to Arsenal and West Brom while drawing Tyne-Wear derby last week. Sunderland's wins since early February have come in cup competition, beating Boro after extra time in an FA Cup replay before knocking Arsenal out in the next round. And three of Sunderland's four losses since December were on the road; only Arsenal have won at the Stadium of Light after O'Neill took charge.

The home side will miss two key players due to suspensions incurred in last week's derby: top scorer Stephane Sessegnon and midfield ankle-breaker Lee Cattermole. Sunderland will probably start Bendtner and Campbell up top, McClean and Larsson on the flanks, and two from Colback, Gardner, Vaughan, and Richardson in central midfield. Richardson may miss out with a calf strain, while Wes Brown, Titus Bramble, and former Liverpool defender (and God of the Sea) Soto Kyrgiakos are also out injured.

In eight matches against O'Neill's Aston Villa, Liverpool lost just once, winning four and drawing three. Admittedly, there's little precedent given Liverpool's change in managers and personnel since, but O'Neill's never had the best record against the Reds, either home or away.

The opening day draw in the previous meeting set the tone for the entire season. Liverpool was eminently wasteful – missing chance after chance, including from the spot, hitting the woodwork, etc. – and Liverpool finished level at Anfield after a solitary irreproducible volley from Larsson. It's probably too late to fully reverse this season's curse, even if (yes, Virginia) there's still something to play for, but sometimes simple revenge can be sufficient motivation.

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