Ahead of the Game: Sunderland

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by @whatahitsonlfc (http://whatahitsonlfc.blogspot.co.uk/)

Liverpool travel to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland on Sunday, as the reds look to avenge their first set of consecutive defeats since February. The sides shared the points in the corresponding fixture last season, as the match finished one-one.

Brendan Rodgers’ team, after a productive start to 2013/14, have regressed recently; the reds have not won in four games. Significantly, their sudden loss of form has coincided with the absence through injury of playmaker Philippe Coutinho. The cunning, subtle Brazilian is, it goes without saying, a key part of Liverpool’s team and his shoulder injury has left the reds looking disjointed. His importance to his team is highlighted by the fact that Liverpool have failed to score a goal since the attacking-midfielder was withdrawn against Swansea. Again, this is no coincidence.

Another substantial loss for Liverpool has been Glen Johnson. Since being forced off with an ankle injury against Manchester United on September 1, the right-back’s absence has been noticeable. Attacking width from both full-backs is vital in Brendan Rodgers’ system, thus Johnson not being in the team has hindered Liverpool.

One indisputable positive for Liverpool, however, is the return to availability of the mercurial Luis Suarez. After completing his 10-match ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic, the Uruguayan was thrust straight back into the reds’ starting line-up by manager Brendan Rodgers, against Manchester United on Wednesday night. Suarez looked lively; constantly harrying defenders and making himself a nuisance for the opposition. He also resumed his developing partnership with fellow striker Daniel Sturridge, linking up routinely with the Englishman. Sturridge, who has scored seven of Liverpool’s last nine Premier League goals, will finally be able to share the goal-scoring burden and responsibility for his side with another prolific marksman. One segment of Suarez’s game which will improve as he settles back into life on the pitch in the Premier League, somewhat worryingly for opposing players, is his match sharpness; he, understandably, showed one or two signs of rustiness on Wednesday night, particularly in-front of goal. As I mentioned, I’d expect this to change over the coming weeks.

Sunderland, who have not kept a clean sheet in their last nine Premier League games, approach Sunday’s clash void of a full-time manager, after last week’s sacking of Paolo Di Canio. Kevin Ball will take charge of The Black Cats as caretaker boss for the second time, after a spell in the role back in 2006.

Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet will of course return to his previous club on Sunday, after Sunderland brought the impressive stopper to the Premier League in 2010. The Belgian has made more saves than any other goalkeeper in the league this season (25), with a saves to shots ratio of 89%: the second best rate of all regular Premier League ‘keepers. In contrast, his predecessor on Wearside, Keiren Westwood, has a saves ratio of 54%, the lowest of any ‘keeper to feature in all five games this season.

Whether Paolo Di Canio’s departure and a change of leadership will reinvigorate Sunderland, as commonly happens, I am unsure. But even if Kevin Ball does garner more togetherness and an improvement from the home side, I’d still expect Liverpool – buoyed by the return of Luis Suarez – to take advantage of Sunderland’s porous defence and win the game.