Newcastle and Sunderland prepare for their most important derby meeting
With both sides staring relegation in the face, Sunday's Tyne-Wear derby between Newcastle and Sunderland is one of the biggest games the two sides will ever play against each other.
Heading into the weekend, Newcastle are 19th in the Premier League table. Sunderland are 17th but could slip into the relegation zone by kickoff at St. James' Park.
Lee Ryder (Newcastle) and Colin Randall (Sunderland) preview Sunday's showdown.
What's the mood at your club ahead of the derby?
Lee Ryder: The mood ahead of the derby on Tyneside is a little bit nervous as another defeat could be catastrophic for Newcastle. However, the arrival of Rafa Benitez as manager has meant there is more room for optimism. If he can get Newcastle as organised as they were at Leicester and the Magpies start taking their chances, United can end their awful run of six derby defeats in a row -- a sequence that was unthinkable when Newcastle used to dominate Sunderland.
Colin Randall: Sunderland are in mixed spirits. Just two points from games at West Ham and Southampton and at home to Crystal Palace represented a huge disappointment, but they took heart from performances that merited a much greater haul. Sam Allardyce used the January window wisely and his new-look team has played far better since then. The question remains whether his players can turn that improvement into the wins needed for survival.
Sunderland have won the last six derbies. Does that recent record have any bearing on this game?
Ryder: Yes it does because Sunderland can gain so much confidence from that, but that will count for absolutely nothing if Newcastle make a good start to the game. If the home side can grab a lead in the game, they will do everything they can to hold on to it and avoid another loss.
Randall: Only to supporters; the run of wins will count for nothing at kickoff. The way each side handles the opening period will be more important in determining the outcome of a match, in which anything seems possible, from a narrow victory for Sunderland to an emphatic Newcastle win with players raising their game for Rafa Benitez. Should the former occur, expect a lot of seven-in-a-row gloating.
Rafa Benitez and Sam Allardyce have clashed in the past. Why will your club's manager have an advantage on Sunday?
Ryder: Benitez has the upper hand in terms of previous clashes, with seven wins and two draws from 13 meetings. Sam Allardyce would love to ruffle his feathers again and I expect Sunderland to put 10 men behind the ball and attempt to engineer a narrow win or draw. However, I am sure Benitez has a few ideas up his sleeve after learning how to win against Big Sam, so he has the advantage.
Randall: Sunderland must be wary of the possibility that Benitez can somehow inspire Newcastle -- wretched for most of this season -- for this match of monumental significance. But he still has to prove himself at the wrong end of the table and this gives Allardyce, a seasoned bottom-end battler, the slight edge as long as he gets his tactics right.
Name the most important player(s) for your team and explain why?
Ryder: Georginio Wijnaldum, without a doubt. The Dutch international has blown hot and cold but, when he plays well, Newcastle play well. He's got goals and assists in his locker so this should be a game he really grasps and show what a great player he is.
Randall: Jermain Defoe's enduring knack of finding the net when it most matters makes him the obvious choice. Beyond him, much may depend on how well such new boys as Lamine Kone, Wahbi Khazri and, if he is plays a part, Emmanuel Eboue cope with the intense atmosphere of arguably the biggest Tyne-Wear derby in history. Goalkeeper Vito Mannone must also be at his best.
If your team loses, is relegation inevitable?
Ryder: It will feel gloomy and that time is running out but I don't think it will be all over. A four-point gap isn't what anybody wants but Sunderland are more than capable of dropping points and Norwich also have the jitters. As such, while a defeat would be a big, big setback, it wouldn't be the end of the world.
Randall: It will certainly feel more likely, though still not inevitable. The answer would have been different had Newcastle won or drawn at Leicester on Monday, rather than being plucky losers. Defeat would be a mighty setback, especially if Norwich have already left West Brom with points. But both Sunderland and Newcastle sides have still to visit Norwich and those are the games that could decide the fate of all three.
What's your prediction?
Ryder: I'm going to be bold and predict a 3-0 win for Newcastle.
Randall: Sunderland to snatch a nerve-shredding 1-0 victory. Optimism prevails because it is unthinkable to view this as anything other than Allardyce's chance to put clear daylight between his side and the bottom three.