Carroll clocking up the minutes as he heads back to the North East.

A green light from Liverpool’s medical staff to Kenny Dalglish signalled Andy Carroll’s first start since signing in January. After a substitute appearance last week in the first leg of the last 16 clash of the Europa League, Carroll lined up with his team mates as You’ll Never Walk Alone rang around Anfield.

There were bright spells for Liverpool in the first half but not enough over 90 minutes to win the game, or even the tie, as 0-0 was enough to see the Portuguese team through to face Dynamo Kiev due to their 1-0 first leg victory.

Carroll won his share of headers, offered lay offs with his chest but still seemed rusty for a goal machine. With only 49 minutes played competitively since 28th December it’s no surprise he’s not performing at the levels reached earlier in the season.

Nobody should have been expecting him to race out of the blocks after such a lay off, and with Braga squeezing the midfield this limited the passes to him and therefore stifling his play. Kenny Dalglish spent FSG’s money on a player with potential; a player for the years ahead so there may yet be a return on £35 million in time.

For now though, Carroll and the rest of Liverpool need to focus on Sunderland. More than a physical test for Carroll it will be mental as the Mackems probably can’t wait to get stuck in the former Toon Army player.

Sunderland are a solid team with good financial support but as more teams in the Premier League are being backed every season Sunderland are still just a determined mid-table team. The Mackems have a no nonsense approach to play, a reflection of their manager ex-Manchester United defender Steve Bruce. Being a Liverpool favourite he’s always guaranteed a warm reception from the travelling Kop.

Bruce, as always, will be trying to beat Liverpool for both Sunderland’s good and his own. With his mentor Alex Ferguson getting closer to retirement Bruce surely has eyes on the Old Trafford hot seat.

The good news for Bruce is Liverpool’s European hangover, three defeats in three Premier League games following Europa League matches gives them hope as the Mackems are looking for their first win at the Stadium of Light since New Year’s Day.

Liverpool will be without Steven Gerrard as he recovers from a hernia operation, while Fabio Aurelio and Martin Kelly are sidelined with hamstring trouble. Daniel Agger may make the bench after missing four matches with a knee injury.

While the news appears bad only Arsenal and Manchester United have picked up more points in 2011 than The Reds, who have scored in every league game since Dalglish returned to manage the club.

Leicester City also have an impressive record since the turn of the year, having won eight and only losing three of their 13 games. They host a mid-table Portsmouth side who beat them 6-1 back in September, a result which no doubt has The Foxes seeking revenge.

On-loan striker Yakubu is an ex-Pompey favourite and is aiming to add to his four-goal tally since leaving Everton. It will be a tough task as Steve Cotterill’s side have kept seven clean sheets in eight games, which leaves them joint top of the form table with Championship leaders QPR.

If both teams want to gain something from this season then three points a-piece is needed, giving them confidence before they head into a two week break due to Euro 2012 qualifiers.

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