By Séamus Leonard
Liverpool welcomes relegation-threatened Sunderland to Anfield on Wednesday, knowing that a victory over the Black Cats would move the Reds to within a point of Premier League leaders Chelsea.
Three points would see Liverpool return to second in the table after Manchester City moved ahead following its 3-0 derby win over Manchester United on Tuesday night. Overcoming Sunderland would also open up a five-point gap on Arsenal after the Gunners were held 2-2 at home by Swansea City.
The hosts head into the game as overwhelming favorites to record their seventh league win on the bounce and make it ten victories and two draws since they last tasted defeat in the league (a 2-1 loss away to Chelsea on December 29 of last year).
The Reds remain title challengers after another high-scoring victory on Saturday. Cardiff City was the latest victim of the Brendan Rodgers’ prolific charges. The Welsh side took the lead twice in the first half but eventually succumbed on a 6-3 scoreline. Striker Daniel Sturridge scored once, and defender Martin Skrtel grabbed a brace of goals, but it was Luis Suarez who went home with the match ball and the majority of the plaudits after the Uruguayan hitman notched his third hat-trick of an already record-breaking season.
Liverpool has now amassed 82 goals during this league campaign, with its clinical attack compensating for the 38 goals conceded. It has been argued by many (myself included) that a failure to address the porous defense could cost the Merseysiders the chance to clinch a 19th top-flight title, but if they continue to rattle the back of the net with such impunity, then maybe they can make nonsense of such claims.
Rodgers’ mantra of focusing on one game at a time has served Liverpool well so far, but it would be remiss of the Northern Irishman to not factor in next Sunday’s clash with Tottenham in some fashion when he comes to choosing his starting 11. France international Mamadou Sakho is fully fit again after almost three months out injured, and the center back would benefit hugely from some competitive action. His physical strength would also be an asset against Sunderland’s well-built striker Jozy Altidore.
While Rodgers must balance the quest for consistency with the need for freshness, he also faces a quandary over how to proceed with captain Steven Gerrard. The 33-year-old picked up his ninth yellow card of the season against Cardiff, and he is now just one caution away from incurring a two-match ban.
With defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva back available after injury, the option is now there to keep Gerrard in reserve. An alternative way forward is to start Gerrard but substitute him if and when it looks like the points are secured. A third approach would be to advise Gerrard to get booked against Sunderland, and gamble that Lucas is up to the task of helping Liverpool get over the line against both Tottenham and away to West Ham. It would be a risk, but the Reds would then be certain of having Gerrard available for the visit of Manchester City on April 13. Assuming he doesn’t get sent-off in the intervening period, the Liverpool skipper would also be eligible for the clash with Chelsea at Anfield on April 27.
Sunderland are also dealing with the implications of disciplinary issues, as full-back Marcos Alonso will sit out this game after being dismissed during Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Norwich City. The Wearsiders must also make do without the services of Fabio Borini, with the on-loan Italian striker unable to face his parent club. Borini has been in excellent form for the northeast club and has scored some crucial goals since his move to the Stadium of Light. His absence is all the more keenly felt given that Scotland international Steven Fletcher remains sidelined with an Achilles problem. In light of the shortage of available attackers, Sunderland fans will be relieved to see Connor Wickham returning from his loan spell at Leeds United.
While Sunderland’s away form has actually been better than its results at home, Gus Poyet’s men are unlikely to be relishing this trip to Anfield. Liverpool has an excellent record on home turf this term, winning 12, drawing one and losing just one of its 14 games to date.
Poyet will be aware that his opponents have struggled against teams that have had the courage be adventurous (Southampton, Aston Villa and Swansea), but he has also seen many teams taken apart by Liverpool’s pace in attack (most notably Arsenal and Everton). Sunderland’s goal difference is better than 17th placed Crystal Palace’s at the moment, and Poyet may see discretion as the better part of valor and engage in a damage limitation exercise. The Black Cats face West Ham United at home on Saturday, and their management team may choose to target that as a more winnable battle.
The visitors will certainly be up against it on Merseyside, as Liverpool fans will be sure to give a rapturous reception to their side after over a month since their last home game. Since the 4-3 win over Swansea on February 23, the Reds have recorded away victories against Southampton, Manchester United and Cardiff. It would be a massive upset if Sunderland proved the road block to that momentum.
Liverpool v Sunderland
When: Wednesday, March 26, 1600 EST/2000 GMT
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: Cardiff City 3-6 Liverpool, Norwich City 2-0 Sunderland
League Position 2013-14: Liverpool 3rd (65 points), Sunderland 18th (25 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Cissokho
MID: Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho
FW: Sterling, Suarez, Sturridge
Subs from: Jones, Flanagan, Kelly, Toure, Agger, Sama, Allen, Smith, Luis Alberto, Teixeira, Aspas, Moses
Projected Sunderland Starting 11
DEF: Bardsley, Brown, O’Shea, Dossena
MID: Johnson, Colback, Bridcutt, Ki, Larsson
Subs from: Ustari, Vergini, Cuellar, Celustka, Gardner, Cattermole, Giaccherini, Scocco, Wickham
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard