Rafa Benitez's move to Newcastle adds extra tension to vital Sunderland derby
In a flurry of double training sessions and extra-loud whistles, Rafa Benitez has arrived on Tyneside. He has the support of the fans, the respect of the players and, from the look of their performance on Monday away at Leicester, the kernel of a competent, coherent football team. St James' Park, a house of misery and degradation for so long, will be shifting on its foundations with noise on Sunday. This is the most critical north-east derby in the Premier League era and Newcastle look ready for it. Sunderland must be cursing their luck.
Five weeks ago, the Black Cats were the team on top. An encouraging performance and unfortunate defeat to Manchester City offered hope. A late fightback at Anfield and a 2-2 draw offered evidence of spirit. And then Sunderland beat Manchester United at the Stadium of Light on Feb. 13, changing the mood significantly. Sam Allardyce's winter signings (Jan Kirchhoff, Lamine Kone, Wahbi Khazri and Dame N'Doye) were a clear improvement on the perpetual disappointments he had inherited and for the first time in months, the team suddenly had a distinct backbone. Later that day, Newcastle were annihilated 5-1 by Chelsea.
But Sunderland weren't able to build on that victory. While Steve McClaren's team fell apart, losing another three games in a row, Allardyce's side played reasonably well against West Ham but left Upton Park empty-handed. Then they squandered a lead against Crystal Palace and were fortunate to snatch back a point in the last minute. But nothing matched the disappointment of allowing three points to slip away at Southampton. Sunderland, for so long a team that performed badly but survived, are in danger of reversing the equation. Nevertheless, the supporters are pleased with what they've seen so far.
"We have a defence now, for a start!" said Chris Thompson of the Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme. "The introduction of Kone to the side has made us look far more sturdy, and we're generally leaking far fewer goals."
Graeme Atkinson, a writer for Roker Report, is just as encouraged. "If you glanced at the league table you would be forgiven for saying Allardyce hasn't improved the Black Cats all that much. However, I don't feel that's a fair reflection on matters. The most significant development since Allardyce arrived on Wearside is that the Black Cats are simply more difficult to break down.
Allardyce has imprinted a clearer identity onto the squad, too. Before his arrival, I wasn't sure what sort of team I was watching. However, since October 2015 we've seen an organised side trying to play more to the strengths of those within the squad, rather than trying to make players fit a system that didn't really suit. Big Sam has taken a far more pragmatic approach by choosing a style of play based on who he has available. At last, common sense!"
This derby couldn't be more important. A win for Sunderland would be their seventh on the bounce in this fixture and would lift them four points clear of Newcastle, with a better goal difference by at least eight. A win for Newcastle, on the other hand, hauls the Black Cats back into the bottom three. More significantly, a victory in this fixture should bring momentum and belief. Defeat could have a catastrophic effect. In essence, this is a knife-fight in a swamp. They'll both go under but only one of them will climb back out.
If McClaren had remained in charge, you wouldn't expect anything other than a Sunderland victory. But he has gone, Benitez has arrived and there's a serious risk of a new manager bounce. Ahead of the derby, however, there is defiance in the Sunderland ranks. Graeme Atkinson, a Sunderland fan and writer for Roker Report admitted to ESPN FC that he was nervous, but dismissed the idea that Benitez would make much difference.
"Obviously much has been made about his appointment, but I'm not sure that significantly changes things for me," Atkinson said. "The Benitez factor certainly won't increase my anxiety; it will already be heightened and on edge without it. With the confidence of the Newcastle squad being at such a low ebb, perhaps a motivator rather than an organiser would have been a better bet for them." There were similar sentiments from other fans. "I have been worried about the last six derbies, and we have won all of those," said Thomspon. "The law of averages dictates that we'll lose one eventually but the law of averages also dictates that we'll eventually finish in the top ten, and I'm still waiting for that one.
"Benitez doesn't scare me."
Benitez hasn't faced a challenge like this since his unsuccessful battle against the drop with Extremadura in 1999, but the early signs are certainly promising. On signing his contract with Newcastle, he immediately assembled his players for an impromptu training session. His impact on the club was so profound that a number of players who had declared themselves unfit for action made miraculous recoveries and were able to join in, though there's probably a clue there as to why they're in such a mess.
Newcastle certainly don't lack players of technical ability. It's just a case of getting them to perform, something that has been the bane of so many managers. The word from the camp is that Benitez is desperate just to keep things simple, put the players in a shape, have them hold it and support each other. Again, it's disturbing that this, surely a minimum expectation, wasn't already happening. But if anyone can organise them quickly, Benitez can.
There is also a bit of history between these two managers. Allardyce criticised Benitez in his autobiography, saying that he didn't like him and that the feeling was mutual. "When we beat Benitez he would complain, 'They don't play my type of football.' What was that then? Winning football? He didn't like me and he thought he was superior."
"Here was a trendy foreign manager with all his smart ideas getting beat by some oik from the Midlands. Benitez wouldn't talk to me at all and that just made it all the better when we won."
When asked for comment after publication, Benitez pointedly asked journalists how many trophies Allardyce had won. He has also made sarcastic comments about Barcelona "copying" the Englishman's style of football.
Allarydce was keen to play down that sort of talk at his Friday press conference, describing it all as "water under the bridge," but one thing is certain. When the game kicks off on Sunday afternoon, he'll wish that McClaren was still in the opposing dugout.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.