With Liverpool once again in the midst of a congested fixture list, form, fitness, and squad depth is again a major talking point at Brendan Rodgers' pre-match press conferences. In the past, he has been accused of sticking with a preferred eleven until players are exhausted, and it is integral that he avoid doing that over the next few weeks.
Anything but three points against Sunderland will represent a significant step back after two straight wins against Stoke and Leicester, then it's straight into a decisive Champions League tie against FC Basel. And Rodgers may have to get creative at striker, where Rickie Lambert has begun to look tired and ineffective while Mario Balotelli and Daniel Sturridge remain out injured.
"He's injured at the moment but he's still very much a Liverpool player," said Rodgers when pressed on Balotelli's status. "My concern is for those who are fit an available. Coutinho had a small issue with his knee on Tuesday, but he should be okay for the weekend. Jose Enrique is back in. We're having to manager Jose and his minutes, but he should be available for the weekend."
After returning to training late last week, Mamadou Sakho should also be approaching full fitness in time for the weekend, and with the 33-year-old Kolo Toure having played the last three matches it will be interesting to see if Rodgers rotates his defence—and if he does, who rotates in. Midfield also offers up a few question marks, particularly to do with Lucas and Steven Gerrard.
Rodgers has in recent weeks admitted that Gerrard can't play every minute of every match any more, and it's possible he starts on the bench again on Sunday with an eye to Basel next Tuesday. Having not played a great deal of football this season, though, Lucas' role could be just as uncertain, with the midfielder having now started three times in the past week.
The temptation will be to stick with what's working, and Rodgers has in the past shown a tendency to do just that. After all, it's always easier to stick with the players who are performing well, and swapping them out risks fan backlash if things don't pan out. Yet it's hard to imagine Lucas having the stamina to start five times in two weeks, and it could be wise to rotate him on Saturday.
Toure, Lucas, Gerrard, and Lambert have all been heavily involved of late. The latter two in particular appeared exhausted in the second half against Leicester. Despite their importance to Liverpool's recent improvements, all likely need to be rotated out of one of the next two matches with a few returning players rotated in if they're to keep things heading in the right direction.