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Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 01.10.15
0-0 (h) 12.06.14
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.26.14
3-1 Liverpool (a) 09.29.13
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Leicester (h); 0-3 Watford (a); 2-2 West Brom (h)
Sunderland: 1-4 City (a); 1-3 Chelsea (a); 0-1 Watford (h)
Liverpool: Benteke, Coutinho 5; Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Firmino, Henderson, Origi, Skrtel 1
Sunderland: Defoe, Fletcher 4; Borini, Lens, Watmore 2; Johnson, Jones, M'Vila, van Aanholt 1
Referee: Kevin Friend
Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Ibe Lallana Coutinho
A busy festive season, a squad still coping with injuries, a match four days before and another three days later.
You have to assume there will be changes to Liverpool's XI. How many and which are less certain.
Benteke's definitely coming in for Origi, who's out for at least this week. Sturridge remains in his "mini-preseason," ideally building up his fitness so these constantly injuries might, you know, actually abate. I suspect Ibe, back from illness, will replace Firmino, but it could also be in place of Lallana or Coutinho. Otherwise, *shrugs*.
Maybe we get one of the young fullbacks: Brad Smith for Moreno or Connor Randall for Clyne; Smith's crossing ability could pair well with Benteke up front. Maybe Lucas returns to the side, for either Henderson or Can, or for one of the attacking midfielders, switching the formation to a 4-3-2-1/4-3-3. Maybe we get Kolo Toure because … no, you're right, that's not going to happen.
Whatever the XI or formation, Liverpool will have to do what they did well against Leicester – the high work-rate, the pressing on the flanks and on the forwards, the elimination of individual errors, the denial of counter-attacking or set play opportunities – and ideally do much, much better in attack.
Sunderland are 19th and Sunderland have been fairly bad over the last month, but that's little matter when Liverpool are still Liverpool far too often, and given who Sunderland's manager is.
If he could choose just one opponent to beat for the rest of his days, I'm fairly certain Sam Allardyce would pick Liverpool. Because Benitez, or something. But no matter who he's managing (or who's managing Liverpool) – Bolton, Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham – he's taken great joy in getting one over on Liverpool. And it's happened far too often for my liking.
Allardyce will Allardyce and Sunderland will Sunderland. Sit deep, deny space, maybe even try for a counter-attack once in a while. Sure, Sunderland have conceded the most goals in the division – 37 through 18 matches – but, knowing Liverpool, that probably makes it more of a challenge than an opportunity. And those most of those goals have come on the road: 28 in the 10 away matches, just nine in the eight home matches.
Sunderland have played both five at the back and 4-3-3/4-5-1 in recent matches. Neither's worked especially well – conceding six at Everton, three at Arsenal and Chelsea, and four at Manchester City over the last two months – but Sunderland have been marginally better at home, even if it's not shown up in the results, with narrow 0-1 defeats to Southampton and Watford, and a 2-0 victory over now-in-form Stoke.
And Sunderland aren't entirely awful up front – Defoe and Fletcher are good players, ex-players featuring against their former clubs are always terrifying (hi Fabio!) – having scored in 12 of their 18 league matches. Liverpool have only scored in one more match than that. Sure, there are just four teams who've scored the same amount or fewer league goals than Sunderland. Liverpool held Swansea scoreless, but conceded twice against Villa, Newcastle, and West Brom. Yikes.
Sunderland's injury issues in defense make five at the back a more difficult proposition: Kaboul's definitely out, while O'Shea's doubtful. Jones, Coates, and Wes Brown can play in a back three, but Brown's only made one appearance this season (the 2-6 loss at Everton), and the 5-4-1 has been used less over the last month due to both injuries and DeAndre Yedlin's form at right wing-back.
The midfielders will be Yann M'Vila and one other: Rodwell, Gomez, Cattermole, or Toivonen; Seb Larsson's also out through injury. The wide players – if it's not five at the back – will be two from Adam Johnson, Borini, Lens, Watmore. The forwards could be any of those wide players, as well as Defoe, Fletcher, or Graham.
Let's go with Pantilimon; Jones, Coates, Brown, van Aanholt; Rodwell, M'Vila, Gomez; Borini, Fletcher, Defoe, and almost certainly be wrong in a couple of places. Regardless of formation or players, you know what you're getting with Sam Allardyce – a deep-lying defense and combative midfield, special attention paid to set plays, and counter-attacking through two or three forwards and maaaaaaaaybe a midfielder.
It'll be up to Liverpool to both break them down, as Liverpool couldn't do at either Newcastle or Watford, and to deny their few goal-scoring opportunities, as Liverpool couldn't do at either Newcastle or Watford.