Liverpool vs. Sunderland: Key Battles to Watch at Anfield
The Reds need to start stringing consecutive victories together in the Premier League to inch their way back toward the top six or so and a home game against Sunderland—with just two wins away from home this season—should be the ideal place to start.
Liverpool will be without the injured trio of Jose Enrique, Martin Kelly and Fabio Borini but will hope for better news on the illness front, with manager Brendan Rodgers missing the QPR game with a virus as well as reserve goalkeeper Brad Jones.
Sunderland have had a mini upturn in form themselves with two 1-0 victories against Southampton and Manchester City over Christmas, but were beaten 2-1 by Spurs most recently having taken the lead initially.
Here are the five key battles of the match ahead.
Luis Suarez vs. Titus Bramble
Here's the matchup all Reds fans want to see.
Luis Suarez is in the form of his career, scoring plenty of goals and having a real influence on matches. He is fit, focused, free of suspension and a vital go-to member of the attack. It's now 16 goals and counting for the Uruguayan who has already scored fantastic goals against this opposition.
Sunderland's central defence is yet to be determined but when they lost John O'Shea to injury against Spurs, Titus Bramble was his replacement.
Famed for his lack of concentration, Bramble is a physical player with his own technical attributes—but is prone to moments of real madness and the feeling must be that if Suarez can isolate himself against the former Wigan defender, Liverpool could have a field day in attack.
Glen Johnson vs. Adam Johnson
Adam Johnson hasn't set the Stadium of Light, well, alight as of yet despite a few flashes of talent, but he is likely to retain his starting place against Liverpool.
He'll play on the right side of midfield for Sunderland so would be expected to face up to Jose Enrique—except the former Newcastle defender tore a hamstring muscle against QPR so will miss out.
Liverpool could switch Stewart Downing to left-back or bring in Jack Robinson but the most sensible option would surely be to return Andre Wisdom to the right-back position and bring Glen Johnson across to the left.
With Adam Johnson continually cutting infield from the flank to aim for goal with his stronger left foot, the Reds would do well to have their own Johnson on that side, able to use his preferred right foot to fend off the threat.
Plus, it'll give the commentators for the match a real headache.
Daniel Agger vs. Steven Fletcher
Liverpool dealt very poorly with the aerial threat of Stoke City, with Daniel Agger in particular given a run-around by Kenwyne Jones.
Steven Fletcher will be a similarly strong striker for the Dane to deal with, though he also has better movement and is more dangerous in the box than the Stoke striker. Agger will have to be alert and on his game to keep out Fletcher.
The Sunderland forward has eight league goals this season; Agger himself has managed a couple but his most important job will definitely be keeping the Scottish striker away from Pepe Reina this game week.
Steven Gerrard vs. Jack Colback
The central midfield battle is always an interesting one.
Despite a perceived lack of form, Liverpool actually won five of their seven fixtures in December which isn't bad—part of this was due to the improved displays of captain Steven Gerrard, who scored three goals and added an assist or three during that month.
He isn't as dynamic as he once was and can no longer steamroller opponents around the pitch but games against the likes of QPR and Fulham have shown that if he is given space and time on the ball he maintains the quality to tear teams apart.
His deeper role this season has allowed him this at times, while then also allowing the unexpected forward surges which aren't tracked as often as they used to be when they were commonplace.
Jack Colback will likely have the job to harry and harass the Reds midfielders; he does a competent job in the work-rate side of the game but gives the ball away too easily and can be slow in reacting to developing situations.
Sunderland will certainly try to out-work Liverpool; if Colback keeps Gerrard quiet then others will need to step up to get the ball forward. If the Black Cats step off, though, expect Gerrard to start the new year in fine form.
Stewart Downing vs. Danny Rose
The final battle is one of arguably Liverpool's most surprisingly in-form players against Sunderland's best of the season; Stewart Downing and Danny Rose.
The on loan left-back from Spurs could yet be recalled by his parent team but Martin O'Neill will certainly hope he stays. Happy to get forward with the ball at his feet, Rose is one of the few in the Sunderland team who could take the game to the Reds and Downing will need to work hard tracking back—as he has done very well recently.
At the other end, the experienced winger has to continue his upturn in form and maintain consistency, rather like the team in general.
Keeping the width to allow more space for Luis Suarez centrally will be key, though Downing must continue to try and provide support in the box when the time is right as well.