7:45am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports
Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 12.06.14
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.26.14
3-1 Liverpool (a) 09.29.13
3-0 Liverpool (h) 01.02.13
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Wimbledon (a); 2-2 Leicester (h); 4-1 Swansea (h)
Sunderland: 1-0 Leeds (h); 2-3 City (a); 0-0 Villa (a)
Liverpool: Gerrard 5; Lallana, Own Goal, Sterling 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Moreno 2; Can, Johnson, Lambert, Skrtel, Sturridge 1
Sunderland: Fletcher, Johnson 4; Gomez, Larsson, Rodwell, Wickham 2; Cattermole 1
Referee: Craig Pawson
Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Manquillo Henderson Lucas Moreno
For once, Liverpool's lineup seems to write itself.
Sterling will undoubtedly return to the lineup as the striker.
Toure's now at the African Cup of Nations while Johnson's still injured and Lovren's still Lovren, so the back three has to be Can, Skrtel, and Sakho.
Lallana's calf injury seemingly ensures Gerrard will start further forward, as against Wimbledon. Which ensures Henderson will partner Lucas. Which ensures Manquillo will be needed at wing-back.
The one spot up for grabs is left wing-back, either Moreno or Markovic. Markovic is seemingly more useful against a packed defense, but Markovic could also be crucial as a game-changing sub off the bench, able to add pace at either wing-back or in attack when sides begin to tire.
There are a couple of alternatives. Bring in Balotelli or Lambert, use Sterling as an attacking midfielder, and either drop Gerrard into midfield or drop Gerrard entirely. Or maybe Rodgers changes the formation, reverting to a diamond or a 3-4-1-2 rather than a 3-4-2-1. But both of those alternatives seem very unlikely.
Over the last couple of months, Sunderland have become draw specialists. Six of their last 10 league matches have ended with honors even, four of those at 0-0, including the last time these two sides met. Sunderland have kept six clean sheets since the beginning of November, which is one more than Liverpool have kept all season (all competitions).
Rodwell, Cattermole, Reveillere, Mannone, and Ricky Alvarez are all doubtful, while Seba Coates is ineligible due to the terms of his loan. If all those players don't feature, Sunderland's XI should be Pantilimon; Vergini, O'Shea, Brown, Jones; Bridcutt; Buckley, Larsson, Gomez, Johnson; Wickham. Which is nearly the exact lineup as in the reverse fixture, except for Buckley in place of Altidore and Jones in place of Reveillere. Cattermole and/or Rodwell are the only ones who'd seem certain to start if available. Both usually play as the deepest midfielder in Sunderland's 4-1-4-1, but both are capable of playing in either Gomez or Larsson's spot further forward as well.
Sunderland's primary philosophy is to keep it tight at the back and be difficult to beat. Any goals scored are a bonus. That's not the best way to face Liverpool. As Leicester demonstrated, as Wimbledon demonstrated, as many, many others have demonstrated, the best way to face Liverpool is to attack Liverpool.
Sunderland, at home, will probably do some attacking. More than in the last meeting, at least, where their entire attack consisted of Wickham throwing himself to the ground in the box and looking hopefully at the referee. And Sunderland demonstrated they're capable of attacking if given the chance, coming back from a two-goal deficit at City before losing 2-3. Still, I expect that this will look more like Liverpool's previous matches against Burnley, Stoke, and, yes, Sunderland.
Which presents a different, if nearly equally difficult challenge: cutting through a packed defense determined to deny space and block shots, a tactic which has often frustrated Liverpool this season. The template for that remains Liverpool's 4-1 win over Swansea, where clever movement, pace, and ball retention eventually led to broken lines, defensive mistakes, and four Liverpool goals.
But, for now, that match remains the exception rather than the rule.