Liverpool visit the Northeast in hopes of getting their Premier League campaign back on track after the loss to Arsenal last weekend, and while there's little hope of Champions League qualification left, a final push could see Kenny Dalglish's squad finish with silverware in more than one competition and, at minimum, more consistency. It won't come easy tomorrow, though, as getting points from an improved Sunderland will prove a tough task at the Stadium of Light.
As much as we might like to point to how unfair the result at Anfield was last weekend, fact is that Liverpool lost. They had chances to pull ahead, but as the narrative of the season demanded, they wasted any and all opportunities to take all three points, and lackadaisical defending conspired with typically poor finishing to leave Liverpool cast adrift in the race for the fourth spot. It's pretty bleak stuff, and it basically signals the end of one part of the club's goals for the 2011-2012 campaign, but we've still got hope that Liverpool can hit their stride.
Sunderland's turnaround since Martin O'Neill's arrival has been well documented---a day after he signed with the club they lost to Wolves, leaving them just a point above the drop. Since that time they've been remarkably different, with only narrow losses to Spurs, Chelsea, and Arsenal to speak of and progress into the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. They hit their first big hiccup in their last match in February, though, with their worst result of the season in a 0-4 result at West Brom. They looked to have bounced back with three points locked up late in the Tyne-Wear derby last weekend, but a late Shola Ameobi goal stole a point for the hosts.
Sunday's draw also leaves O'Neill without leading scorer Stephane Sessegnon and Lee Cattermole, with the former sent off for elbowing Cheik Tiote and the latter getting booked in the first minute and given a straight red after the final whistle for verbally abusing Mike Dean. So mostly just being himself. Kieran Richardson might miss out through injury, but John O'Shea is expected to feature with a cast on his hand. Without Sessegnon, the biggest threat will come from Sebastian Larsson from the midfield and set pieces, and Nicklas Bendtner or Frazier Campbell in attack.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Kelly Skrtel Coates Enrique
Henderson Spearing Maxi
Suarez Kuyt Bellamy
---Apparently both Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson are back and ready for selection, which leaves Agger and Lucas as the only confirmed absences.
---No more discussion needed in the case of Sebastian Coates or Jamie Carragher to fill in for Agger alongside Martin Skrtel, as pretty much everyone's in agreement that it's time for Coates to see some action. That doesn't mean it'll actually happen, and there's probably a good chance that Carragher starts again, but there's no reason other than sentimentality for Coates to be on the bench. Skrtel and Jose Enrique are the mainstays for now, and while Johnson's back in training, I wouldn't be surprised to see Martin Kelly start again.
---Like Johnson, there's no confirmation that Steven Gerrard's match-ready, and there's no rush for him at this point in his career. I'd love to see Jonjo Shelvey start, but talk about him going back on loan doesn't seem to bode well for any time tomorrow. That leaves Charlie Adam, Jay Spearing, and Jordan Henderson, and though it's likely all three start, I'd like to see Maxi come in as part of a three-man midfield with Spearing holding and the Argentine and Henderson pushing forward. Because why not.
---There's four options up front with three spots left, and any of Dirk Kuyt, Craig Bellamy, and Andy Carroll could combine with Luis Suarez, who seems the only lock to start. In the interest of development I wouldn't mind seeing Andy Carroll, but Liverpool aren't terribly effective with him in the side, and while that can only come with more time on the pitch, I'll go with Suarez, Kuyt and Bellamy in attack.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
Liverpool's had an unfortunately high number of opportunities to display resiliency this season, and tomorrow's no different. The season's all about finishing strong in the FA Cup now, but hitting their stride down the stretch in league wouldn't be so bad either. There's not really any sense of who this Liverpool side is, which is a frightening prospect over a week into March. I'm not sure that they can find that identity with the time left (or the personnel available), but it'd be nice to see Liverpool get themselves on some sort of track and stay there.
Kickoff is set for 3:00pm GMT/10:00am EST---no listings tomorrow for folks in England, and Fox Soccer Plus is the only carrier in the United States. I'm sure those in Australia will be enjoying the match on a free public channel at a poolside bar whilst swigging cocktails, but it's not so great news for the rest of us. We're sure to have streams available despite the clear Southern Hemisphere bias, though, and we'll link to those in the matchday thread later on, which will include team sheets as they're released starting about an hour before the match.
Hope you've all had a nice week, and let's all look towards a nice start to the weekend tomorrow.