Kick-off: Tuesday, March 3, 2009 (20:00 GMT). Anfield, Liverpool.
Down And Out
After they beat Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in Champions League action last Wednesday, few were expecting an excellent display from Liverpool when they travelled to Middlesbrough at the weekend. Their record of European hangovers is legendary, but even the Mersey men's most jaded critics could not have envisaged what occurred at the Riverside.
The Reds put on perhaps their most disjointed and disappointing show of the season as they sank to a 2-0 defeat against Gareth Southgate's relegation battlers, a result that could see them fall ten points behind Premier League frontrunners Manchester United - who were busy winning the League Cup on Sunday - once the Devils make up their game in hand.
Thus, after leading the pack at the turn of the year, Rafael Benitez's crew have all but bowed out of the title race, and pressure is mounting on the manager ahead of Tuesday's fixture with Sunderland. But the Spaniard has sought to divert attention from his contract situation and train the focus instead on the task at hand.
"My concern now is the game against Sunderland," he said. "We have to prepare for this game properly."
Anything but victory will see Liverpool, who now sit third, fall irrevocably out of title contention. They will have to kick their habit of drawing at Anfield - which has plagued them against smaller sides in particular - to keep their very, very slender hopes alive.
Meanwhile, as their upcoming opponents wallow in the wake of their Boro bruising, the Black Cats will aim to extend their unbeaten run in the league to five games and edge closer still to their ultimate goal: a safe, mid-table finish.
The Wearside club currently sit 12th, five points above the drop zone, although they have played a games less than the bottom trio of Middlesbrough, Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion. A win in the North West could boost them into the top ten, pending results elsewhere.
Sunderland's record against the 'Big Four' this season reads fairly well, all things considered. They were trounced by Luiz Felipe Scoari's Chelsea but conceded just three goals in total in their 'first leg' meetings with Arsenal (1-1), Manchester United (0-1) and Liverpool (0-1), who needed a late Fernando Torres strike to claim the points on the opening day of the season.
And now, after seeing his men hold the Gunners to a goalless draw at the Emirates on their last league outing, manager Ricky Sbragia is confident of at least taking home a share of the spoils when they tackle the five-time European champions - even though the Mackems haven't beaten them since 2002.
The Scot said, "We want to take at least a point on Tuesday night and if we do, that will be another setback for Liverpool." And that would be an added bonus for a man who enjoyed a successful spell coaching at Old Trafford.
Feb 28 Middlesbrough 2-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 25 Real Madrid 0-1 Liverpool (Champions League)
Feb 22 Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City (Premier League)
Feb 07 Portsmouth 2-3 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 04 Everton 1-0 Liverpool (FA Cup)
Feb 21 Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland (Premier League)
Feb 07 Sunderland 2-0 Stoke City (Premier League)
Feb 04 Blackburn Rovers 2-1 Sunderland (FA Cup)
Feb 01 Newcastle United 1-1 Sunderland (Premier League)
Jan 27 Sunderland 1-0 Fulham (Premier League)
A mixed bag on the injury front. Steven Gerrard has recovered from a knock picked up against Boro and is expected to start, but Fernando Torres remains on the sidelines with an ankle problem. Alvaro Arbeloa (hamstring) will join his fellow Spaniard in the dugout, alongside Danish defender Daniel Agger (back).
There should be some changes from the lucky dip line-up that featured at the weekend, with wing duo Ryan Babel and Nabil El Zhar likely to make way for Yossi Benayoun and Albert Riera. Martin Skrtel won't be playing at right-back again in the foreseeable future, and own-goal scorer Xabi Alonso might be rested after his tired display against the Teessiders.
Liverpool squad: Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Hyypia, Dossena, Aurelio, Babel, Benayoun, Gerrard, Mascherano, Alonso, Kuyt, Lucas, Ngog, El Zhar, Riera, Darby, Cavalieri.
Djibril Cisse has shaken off an ankle problem and should start against his former club. He may well be partnered by Kenwyne Jones, who has recovered from a knee problem. Steed Malbranque and Teemu Tainio sustained minor injuries against Arsenal, but both are in the squad and could feature.
Phil Bardsley is available after serving a suspension, but Nyron Nosworthy is still out of action after further aggravating his dud hamstring.
Sunderland: Fulop, Gordon, Bardsley, McCartney, Ferdinand, Collins, McShane, Davenport, Ben Haim, Whitehead, Malbranque, Leadbitter, Tainio, Richardson, Edwards, Yorke, Reid, Cisse, Jones, Murphy, Healy.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
With 'El Nino' in the treatment room once more, Steven Gerrard must yet again shoulder the burden of keeping his side's domestic hopes alive. The Scouse hero is yet to regain full fitness after a layoff of his own, but even a hobbling Stevie G possesses a match-winning that none of his team-mates do - Torres perhaps notwithstanding.
He is widely regarded as one of Gerard Houllier's many French flops after netting 11 goals in 49 league appearances at Liverpool, but Djibril Cisse has reminded everyone this season why the Kop made him their record signing in 2004. The speedy striker has 10 goals this term and will be determined to prove Benitez wrong for offloading him.
It's a must-win game for Liverpool at home in the league, against technically inferior opposition - therefore, they cannot claim victory. Simple as that.
Liverpool 1-1 Sunderland
Mike Maguire, Goal.com