Date: 13th August 2011 at 3:30pm
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THE 2011-12 season kicks off today and Liverpool start their campaign by welcoming a new-look Sunderland side to Anfield. Last year Liverpool took four points from six against Steve Bruce’s men, but since their last encounter, the Black Cats have made nine new signings in the off-season- including Reds target Conor Wickham- and will be a much tougher side to beat this time round.

Following Jordan Henderson’s move to Liverpool, Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn has had cash to splash this summer and wasted no time in doing that. Wes Brown and John O’Shea signed from Manchester United to provide the Black Cats with more cover at the back while Ahmed Elmohamady signed a permanent deal following his successful loan spell last season. Kieran Westwood was signed to challenge Craig Gordan and Simon Mignolet for the number one shirt while David Vaughan (Blackpool) and Sebastian Larsson (Birmingham) signed on free transfers to help provide competition in the Sunderland midfield and Craig Gardner also joined from Birmingham for £6m. South Korean international Ji Dong-Won, signed from Chunham Dragons for £2.1m, and England prospect Conor Wickham, signed from Ipswich Town for £13m, will provide competition for Asamoah Gyan up front. Last year the Ghanian scored 10 goals for the Black Cats before injury brought his season to an early end. However, with the summer signings it looks like Sunderland will be a much harder opposition to beat, especially with the experience of Brown and O’Shea at the back, and will be hoping that with the help of Wickham and the other new signings they can challenge for a Europa League spot. So what problems will they cause Liverpool?

The word from the Sunderland camp is that Stephane Sessegnon has looked good in the off-season. Signed for £6m in January from PSG, the man from Benin sparked Sunderland’s attack with his ability to link the play and create chances for his team-mates. Due to Sunderland’s striker crisis in the second half of the season, with Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck both picking up injuries, Sessegnon was asked to play as an emergency striker and scored three times in thirteen appearances. In pre-season he has been used as a secondary striker behind Gyan and Conor Wickham and has scored three goals in Sunderland’s tours of England, Scotland and Germany. Against Liverpool he will play between the midfield and attack, making him difficult to mark, so Dalglish may ask Lucas to play behind Charlie Adam and to mark Sessegnon.

Craig Gardner joined Sunderland for £6m last month. The former Birmingham City midfielder was their stand-out performer last term in an otherwise forgettable season for the Blues. He is a hard-working midfielder who has a great eye for goal, especially from distance, and scored 10 goals last season. If he gets time and space to shoot he will, so Liverpool will need to close him down quickly. Sebastian Larsson played with Gardner for Birmingham and was linked with a move to Anfield before joining Sunderland. The Swede is a great crosser of the ball and will whip crosses in from the right onto Conor Wickham’s head. He is also a free-kick specialist so Liverpool will need to be careful with their tackles around the edge of the box.

Asamoah Gyan carries Sunderland’s greatest threat to Liverpool. Gyan is a clever player with great pace, great dribbling skills and great movement. He is also a goal-scorer and will only need half a chance to score so Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger will have to stick close to him. It is likely that Steve Bruce will play Asamoah Gyan as a lone striker and pack the midfield against Liverpool, with Sessegnon and Gardner supporting Gyan in attack. Wes Brown is likely to make his debut for the Black Cats and will command the back four with his experience. John O’Shea is missing through injury so Anton Ferdinand or Michael Turner will come in as replacement while Phil Bardsley and Ahmed Elmohamady are favourites to be given the full-back positions. New signing Kieran Westwood will miss out as Steve Bruce picks between Craig Gordan and Simon Mignolet for the number one spot.

Prediction

Liverpool need to find a way to keep Stephane Sessegnon and Asamoah Gyan out of the game which means Lucas will probably play alongside Charlie Adam to break up Sunderland’s attacks. Stewart Downing and Dirk Kuyt will cause problems for Bardsley and Elmohamady on the wings and Andy Carroll will win most balls in the air against Wes Brown, so Liverpool should be able to control the game. Sunderland will be difficult to beat, but with the quality and confidence of the Liverpool players and backing of the fans the Reds should come away from this with three points.

Score prediction, Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland