2:45pm ET, live in the US on espn2
Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 09.15.12
0-1 Sunderland (a) 03.10.12
1-1 (h) 08.13.11
2-0 Liverpool (a) 03.28.11
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 QPR (a); 1-3 Stoke (a); 4-0 Fulham (h)
Sunderland: 1-2 Spurs (h); 1-0 City (h); 1-0 Southampton (a)
Liverpool: Suarez 13; Gerrard 4; Agger, Skrtel 2; Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin, Sterling 1
Sunderland: Fletcher 8; Johnson, Sessegnon 3; Gardner 2; Cuellar, McClean, O'Shea 1
Referee: Phil Dowd
Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Downing
Suso Suarez Sterling
Okay. Now that it's 2013, let's all promise to never mention 2012 again. Sure, Liverpool won its first trophy in six years. But all that other stuff happened. Liverpool really need to move past that other stuff. So, deal?
Anyway. Enrique's injury will force a reshuffle in a couple areas of the pitch. Chances are that Downing, who'd started the last three matches on the right flank, will drop into defense. Wisdom could come back into the lineup, shifting Johnson to left-back, but the young fullback hasn't been seen since the draw against Young Boys, limited to appearances planted on the substitutes' bench. Given that Sunderland will probably sit back and invite Liverpool to attack, to break through an incredibly packed defense, Liverpool will need both fullbacks to get forward early and often (as well as Agger on occasion). Which suggests Downing is the better option anyway.
That means we're back to wondering who'll fill out the third attacking spot. No, Liverpool haven't signed anyone yet. Assaidi finally reappeared on the bench against QPR, but either Shelvey or Suso seems the more likely option. Shelvey started on the flanks against Villa and Southampton; Suso started against Fulham and came on after Enrique's injury on Sunday. Suso's eye for a pass could be crucial in breaking through the defense tomorrow, while Shelvey's one of the few to make constant runs into the box and get shots on target (even if they're not necessarily good shots on target); movement in the final third will be crucial, and Shelvey – along with Gerrard's runs from deep – provides movement. So, yeah, your guess is as good as mine.
I'd prefer to see Henderson keep his place, but I don't know how likely it is. The fact that he'd be facing his old club won't even enter the equation. I think his work-rate in pressing high up the pitch would be crucial to combat Sunderland's launched long balls toward Fletcher and up the flanks, and Henderson's been one of Liverpool's better central midfielders when given the opportunity in recent months. However, Lucas is almost certain to return to the starting XI, while Rodgers – for better or worse – clearly prefers using Gerrard and Allen as much as humanly possible. That Henderson was ill against QPR doesn't bode well for his chances tomorrow either, with the player likely still drained from Sunday's exertions. Nonetheless, I think Henderson's running would have more impact than Allen's patient passing against tomorrow's opposition. Also, no, I don't know what happened to Şahin but I think it's pretty safe to assume he won't play.
Sunderland's three wins in their last five matches – against Reading, Southampton, and City – have put some distance between them and the relegation zone, after winning just twice in the first 15 fixtures. Victories over Reading and Southampton were less than surprising, while Sunderland have become one of City's bogey sides, winning 1-0 in the last three meetings at the Stadium of Light. In addition, O'Neill's team held their opponents scoreless in all three of those victories, while the two losses came against United and Tottenham – hardly matches that Sunderland would expect to win. That Liverpool have beaten Sunderland just once in the last five meetings, drawing three and losing one, bodes as poorly as Sunderland's recent string of clean sheets.
The Mackems remain a very Martin O'Neill team. More a 4-4-1-1 than a 4-2-3-1, Sunderland prefer to sit deep in the defensive third – which caused Liverpool numerous problems in the reverse fixture – countering quickly through the flanks when reclaiming possession. Johnson and McClean will sprint up and down the wings (more up than down in Johnson's case), Sessegnon will operate between the lines, and Fletcher will linger on the shoulder of the last defender, looking to fulfill his fox-in-the-box role whenever Sunderland manage to launch the ball into the area. With Cattermole out for an extended period (not through suspension this time!), Colback and Larsson are the likely central midfield duo, while the back four should be Gardner-Bramble-Cuellar-Rose, as both John O'Shea and Wes Brown will also be absent through injury.
Recent form and recent meetings suggest a tough match for Liverpool. Not that any match comes especially easy these days. But both the New Year and this opposition present an opportunity to end last year's hoodoo, and an end to the unneeded, infuriating one-step-forward, two-steps-back trend.