10am ET, live in the US on USA Network
Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.30.15
1-0 Liverpool (a) 01.10.15
0-0 (h) 12.06.14
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.26.14
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Leicester (a); 0-0 West Ham (h); 0-1 Stoke aet (h)
Sunderland: 0-1 City (h); 1-1 Bournemouth (h); 1-4 Tottenham (a)
Liverpool: Benteke 6; Coutinho, Firmino 5; Milner 3; Henderson, Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Allen, Lallana, Origi, Skrtel 1
Sunderland: Defoe 9; Fletcher 4; van Aanholt 3; Borini, Lens, Watmore 2; Johnson, Jones, M’Vila 1
Referee: Robert Madley
Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Can Milner
To Benteke or not to Benteke? I guess that’s the question.
Liverpool have been held scoreless in the five hours since the five-goal outburst at Norwich. One of those matches – the FA Cup tie against West Ham – saw an almost entirely different XI, but those against both Stoke and Leicester were basically the same as at Norwich: Henderson, Lucas, Can in midfield; Firmino, Milner, and either Lallana or Ibe up front. And it’s been dire. Absolutely dire.
There’s really only one way Liverpool can change things, and that’s starting Liverpool’s only (and rightfully maligned) out-and-out striker. Otherwise, it’s half measures: Ibe or Ojo add pace, but little experience or guile in front of goal; Allen’s fitter than Henderson, Lucas, and maybe even Can, but that’s not a massive help up front; Brad Smith's seemingly in better form than Moreno, but it has been against weaker opposition; Teixiera might add more creativity, but who’s he creating for?
Christian Benteke wasn’t good against West Ham with the kids. Or Exeter, for that matter. He hasn’t been good as a substitute in the aforementioned painful scoreless draws or losses. But is he really worse than the "we tried hard, but that’s about it" that we’ve seen over the last few matches? Maybe. At this point, I’m almost happier with the devil we don’t know rather than the one we know all too well.
Coutinho, Origi, and Sturridge have all returned to training, but will return for the replay against West Ham at the soonest. They truly can make a difference. Until then, it remains a holding pattern.
This team needs goals. That’s the alpha, that’s the omega. Benteke’s certainly no guarantee of goals, but he has to be more likely, even if only slightly, than what we’ve seen lately.
Of course, Benteke started the last time these two sides met. And Benteke scored the winner. But, once again, it was an insipid attacking performance, a narrow 1-0 win. It certainly wasn’t a vote of confidence; after that, Benteke started the next league match, an abominable loss at West Ham, and has only started FA Cup matches since.
And that narrow, just-barely-good-enough performance came against a Sunderland side who’ve conceded the most goals in the division, one more than second-worst Norwich. Which might well be an argument for the same XI which faced Norwich. Sunderland have been especially porous away from home, conceding 34 of their 47 in total, six more than the second-worst side. They’ve allowed three goals away from home three times, four goals three times, and six goals once. They’ve kept just one away clean sheet: at Palace in November.
Of course, always assume Liverpool can buck that sort of trend.
Sunderland are currently 19th, four points and goal difference from safety. Given their position, it’s little surprise that they were one of the busiest in the January transfer window, adding Dame N’Doye and Wahbi Khazri in attack, and Lamine Kone and Jan Kirchhoff in defense. Both Kone and Kirchhoff – the latter as a defensive midfielder – started on Tuesday, both Khazri and N’Doye came off the bench.
Jeremiah Lens, Yann M’Vila, and Younes Kaboul are questionable; Seb Larsson’s still out injured.
Assuming it’ll be a similar line-up as against Manchester City – where Sunderland played well but lost 0-1 to an early Agüero goal, with City happy to just sit back and stifle after taking the lead – the XI should be Mannone; Jones, Kone, O’Shea, van Aanholt; Kirchhoff; Khazri, M’Vila, Cattermole, Borini; Defoe. We’ll assume Lens, who needed to be replaced at halftime on Tuesday, and Kaboul, out for the last six weeks, aren’t available, but M’Vila will be. If he’s not, Sunderland could play Rodwell, Adam Johnson, or Ola Toivonen in midfield, or switch formations: to either five at the back or 4-4-2.
With Liverpool held scoreless against both Stoke and West Ham, Anfield hasn’t seen a goal since the FA Cup replay against Exeter on January 20th, and hasn’t seen a league goal since Joe Allen’s 90th-minute equalizer against Arsenal on January 13th.
No offense to Sunderland (okay, only slight offense, and all towards Sam Allardyce), but tomorrow is all about what Liverpool do. It’s all about goals. Liverpool simply have to score more of them. Any of them.