After the international break, the Stadium of Light will play host to the 147th Wear-Tyne derby, no doubt the biggest game of the season for the region. Newcastle and Sunderland each enter the game on the back of a comprehensive beating from a Manchester side, with indifferent league form preceding that. Both, though, have an in-form striker in their ranks.
Steven Fletcher has scored all 5 of Sunderland’s league goals to date this season, scoring with every one of his five shots on target. This could be viewed as overdependence on one player, but it also shows how well Fletcher has started his Sunderland career, particularly with an estimated £14 million price tag over his head. Meanwhile, Demba Ba has replicated and even bettered his form from this time a year ago for Newcastle, and sits as the Premier League’s top scorer with 6 goals, 1 more than Fletcher, as well as the likes of Suarez, van Persie and Torres. Both players go into the game in top form and will be good bets for their first Tyne-Wear derby goals, as only Ba has played in this fixture before, missing a penalty in his one previous game.
Sunderland invested heavily in the summer, with 8 figure deals for both Fletcher and Adam Johnson showing faith in manager Martin O’Neill and giving a signal of intent to the rest of the league that they have ambitions to advance up the league, challenging for silverware and European involvement. Johnson has not quite hit form yet following his escape from Manchester City, but the winger will be a threat on Sunday. One player who will not be involved is Lee Cattermole, sent off recently for the 7th time in his still young career. The Tyne-Wear derby never fails to be a feisty affair, with Cattermole and Cheick Tiote always at the centre of it in recent seasons. Sunderland will miss Cattermole’s aggression in the middle of the pitch – whatever your opinion of him, this is the type of game he belongs in. This is only O’Neill’s second Tyne Wear derby, but his favourable record in the Old Firm and midlands derbies will give him confidence ahead of the game.
Newcastle, meanwhile, followed up a 5th place finish last season with a net investment of just £3 million, viewing the summer transfer window with a “no business is good business” attitude and holding onto all of their star players. Despite Demba Ba’s excellent start, Papiss Cisse is yet to score this season in the Premier League (netting two goals so far, one in the Capital One Cup and one in Europa League action). While clearly a talented forward, Cisse has only scored in the same game as Ba one on occasion – his debut. His current poor run of form could lead Newcastle to draft in derby specialist Shola Ameobi. His impressive return of 7 goals in 12 Tyne-Wear derby appearances stands out from an otherwise poor career goal record and his recent good form in the Europa League means a first team call would be a deserved one ahead of a game which clearly means a lot to him, having grown up in Newcastle. This will be Alan Pardew’s third Tyne Wear derby, winning one against Steve Bruce and drawing the only previous encounter between himself and O’Neill in this fixture. Pardew will be sweating on the fitness of Fabricio Coloccini, Steven Taylor and goalkeeper Tim Krul, who have all missed recent games through injury and hope to return in time for the weekend. The return of all three would be a welcome one, significantly strengthening the defence after a few weeks absence.
There is something more to be won with this particular derby though. It doesn’t show much promise of being an amazing spectacle – both teams are playing fairly uninspired football and neither is near the top or bottom of the table, but that’s exactly why they both need this game to go well. A win in this fixture is a season changer. Last season, Newcastle were preparing for Pardew’s first full season in charge and looking to build on a 12th place finish in the 2010/11 season. The derby was the second game of the season, also away to Sunderland, and a 1-0 win for the Magpies inspired a terrific run of results which kept them unbeaten for 13 games, (eventually beaten by champions-to-be Manchester City,) and ended up with a 5th place finish. On the other hand, for then Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, the home defeat set in motion a disappointing start to the campaign which ended in his sacking later that season. The point being that a strong performance and better yet, a positive result in this game breeds confidence in the team from its fans and mean the dressing room keep faith in their manager. Pardew and O’Neill are both yet to lose this fixture, and you feel that if one does first this weekend, he will be in for a tough season.
In the recent history between these two rivals, Newcastle have been utterly dominant in this fixture, only losing once away to Sunderland in over 30 years, but Sunderland are becoming more accustomed to the game, holding Newcastle to a draw at St James’ last season, and but for an injury time equaliser, they would have taken all three points. Sunderland have only won once since March, and Newcastle haven’t hit the form which guided them to a 5th place finish last season, so both clubs are currently sitting in mid-table, although neither have lost to a side not in the Champions League this season. Both managers may set up conservatively to avoid a derby defeat this early in the season; as mentioned, a defeat can derail a season as much as a win can inspire one. A score draw is possibly on the cards for this game: neither has started the season significantly better than the other has, but the fixture rarely fails to provide a goal or two. Oh, and there’s been 4 red cards in the last 3 of these games…