A Matter of Life and Death

Another derby ahead. This time winner takes it all.

On Sunday, at 1330 Zulu Time, everything shall be settled once and for all.

Newcastle and Sunderland will play the Tyne–Wear derby for the 156th time, clashing against each other in a Premier League relegation dogfight. As both simple math and league table confirm – baring some ridiculous circumstances, it will be between them and Norwich City to decide who will join the doomed eleven of Aston Villa in the Championship next season. In other words: only one of the Northlands’ representatives in the English top flight can still be there this time next year. One – or none at all, because a draw this weekend might be a saving grace, a helping hand involuntarily lent to the Canaries from Carrow Road.

If we were to judge this critical fixture only by it’s most recent historical record, there would be only one winner. Sunderland have won all six previous meetings against Newcastle, scoring thirteen and conceding only one goal in those. They’ve been in fact undefeated in the derby for the last four years and six months. The last time Black Cats fell to their sworn rivals, Simon Mignolet was still taking care of their goal while Jack Colback didn’t even dream about moving to St. James’ Park. In view of that, it’s the visitors who will hold a huge psychological advantage next Sunday – especially since their last 3-0 derby win has been achieved totally against the run of play and with a serious help from the referee.

However, other than their recent supremacy over Geordies, The Mackems cannot be happy at all with the team’s overall form. Only one win in the last eight Premier League matches and not a single clean sheet since November is not what a team that aims to park the bus every game wants. And it could’ve been worse: at Anfield against Liverpool and at home, to a recently atrocious Crystal Palace outfit, Sam Allardyce’s lads had to rescue one point in the final ten minutes. A 1-1 draw at St. Mary’s didn’t boost their confidence either: even though one point against Southampton could be considered a success, Sunderland have thrown away a 1-0 lead despite jumping to it in the 85th minute with one-player advantage.

As the results continued to be unsatisfactory, the manager has continued to look for his optimal starting XI. The rotation has been quite extensive: first squad sent out to combat Southampton two weeks ago contained only three out of eleven lads who played the opening game of the season against Leicester. Those three survivors: centre-back Younes Kaboul, left-back Partick van Aanholt and midfielder Jack Rodwell – they’re all the pillars of Allardyce’s unpleasant strategy of giving up the ball and using counterattacks as a main offensive weapon. The Dutchman was particularly impressive this season – without his three goals and two assists, Mackems would probably be in Aston Villa’s situation already.

However, when it comes to the rest of the squad, it’s been nothing but a complete and utter roller coaster of man-management for Big Sam. He’s already lost Lee Cattermole twice this season – both times due to a back injury – before the team’s first-choice DM has made a comeback against Crystal Palace… and immediately suffered a concussion. In other news, winger Adam Johnson has been released from the club following his involvement in an infamous sex scandal while one of the team’s unquestionable leaders, goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon, was sold to Watford, only to sit on The Hornets’ bench. With Jermain Lens (hernia), Duncan Watmore (ankle ligaments) and John O’Shea (calf) also out of contention, the Sunday game will surely become yet another team-selection puzzle to solve.

Other than the sheer determination – what Mackems really have to offer that could win them this derby again? First and foremost, they do have Jeremain Defoe back in the top form. The 33-years old remains the ninth-best Premier League goalscorer at the moment and, out of teams in the bottom half of the table, only Everton (Lukaku) and Watford (Ighalo) possess more proficient strikers than Sunderland do. The service to Defoe will be provided mainly by ex-Bordeaux playmaker, Wahbi Khazri, who picked up 5 goals and 7 assists in 20 Ligue 1 games earlier this season and produced two strong performances against Man Utd and Liverpool immediately after his move to England.

Still, the game is quite likely to unfold exactly the way it did in October. Back then, Big Sam’s team used to be at the very bottom of the crisis, not being able to score a single win out of their 9 initial 2015/16 BPL games. In accordance to their dismal form, they’d start the derby horribly, allowing Newcastle to dominate the contest all across the pitch. After twenty minutes, Magpies enjoyed 75% possession; after thirty, they already had nine attempts on Pantilimon’s goal. The Romanian was undoubtedly a Man of that Match, having made eight (!) saves in 90 minutes. Eventually, it was him, teamed up with the referee Robert Madley, who decided the outcome of the game – as later, Coloccini would be unjustly penalized with a red card for a shoulder charge on Steven Fletcher in the penalty area.

Coloccini’s dumb challenge has decided the previous battle against Mackems.

Allardyce probably won’t mind if the Sunday match gives Newcastle players the same amount of time and space to kick the ball around – at least as long as the result remains satisfactory for the visitors. However, this time, his players will not be playing against weak-minded, inefficient and feeble McClaren’s team. As Wally with the Brolly has been sacked a week ago, Sunderland are set to face the team of a Champions League winner and a former Real Madrid manager. Rafa Benítez is in town – and that fact will surely heat up the derby even more. The Spanish boss has few bones to pick with Big Sam: already in 2004, those two characters have entered an argument over Liverpool’s defeat to Bolton – and, from that day on, their big-mouthed dispute continues.

From the moment Rafa has agreed a contract at St. James’ Park, he’s been seen as some kind of a saviour by the majority of NUFC fans. After all, his current reputation in the football world far exceeds the reputation of his new club. Then came the away match against the leaders from Leicester and the flow of that game more or less confirmed The Toons’ worst fears. Even though their bunch of players have unanimously shown some signs of improvement, Foxes were still easily the better team and went on to win anyway, courtesy of Shinji Okazaki’s overhead kick. From Newcastle’s perspective, that game was marred by poorly struck shots and bleak attacking attempts – certainly not the kind of qualities that would come in handy against a team that likes to dig in the way Sunderland lads do.

If I had to describe the state of Newcastle United in the year 2016, I’d have to say it’s a team full of holes. As we speak, no less than twelve their players are suffering from injuries – but it’s not just about fitness issues. Having spent a little over £80 million on eight new players, the club still lacks a proper left-back and a suitable centre-back partner for Chancel Mbemba – who, by the way, is injured anyway. As a result of all that circumstances, on Sunday, Magpies are likely to bring Stevie Taylor and Jamaal Lascelles to defend the space in front of Rob Eliott’s goal. One of those players has been directly responsible for his team’s relegation in 2009; the other has only clocked eight Premier League appearances to date.

Going forward, things aren’t looking much better. Two players who were supposed to be Magpies’ creative leaders – Wijnaldum and Sissoko – have turned out to be the footballers, who only show up for one game out of every ten they’d play. The Dutchman had trail blazers against Norwich and Liverpool; the Frenchman excelled against Tottenham. And… that’s about it from the guys who were supposed to be Magpies’ leading wingers. As a result, the only consistent elements in NUFC’s offensive arsenal are now: occasional flashes of talent from the second-striker Ayoze Pérez; sporadic decent crosses put in the box by the right-back Daryl Janmaat; and, recently, a few magical passes made by ex-Swansea man, Jonjo Shelvey.

Let’s be frank: neither this landscape, nor the NUFC’s pathetic record this season make them a team that would deserve anything else than a relegation. Already a year ago, in this post, I was sceptical about Magpies’ level of determination and even about their professional mentality. As it turned out, that spring, they’ve managed to stay up thanks to Víctor Valdés’ good goalkeeping performance against Hull and Jonás Gutiérrez’s heroic antics against West Ham. Since then, they’ve failed to learn their lesson, appointed another mediocre manager, refused to bring more quality to their shambolic backline and ended up in a situation, in which they’re trying to patch all the wounds with only two months and nine Premier League games to go.

The math of their survival quest is quite straightforward. Last season, 36 points was an absolute bare minimum required to stave off the relegation threat; this season, due to much closer competition all across the league, about 40 points should suffice. This means that both Sunderland (25 pts) and Newcastle (24 pts) require at least five more wins to escape the doom. Geordies will be hosting Swansea and Palace later; they’re also going to visit Aston Villa and Norwich. Unfortunately, other than that, there are literally no decent fixtures left for them (Southampton, Man City, Liverpool and Spurs can hardly be considered ones). In other words – if they really want to score five wins and dig themselves out of the grave, the first victory must come this weekend.

Bottom half of the table. Mathematically, nobody’s safe yet.

Mackems’ calendar is only marginally better. Leicester, Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton, all at home – those are the ‘hopeless’ matchdays; West Brom, Norwich, Stoke and Watford – those, for a change, are the games that might realistically be won. So again, exactly like their Black and White rivals, The Black Cats must either strike now or perish. A draw will be unacceptable for both parties; in fact, it should only suit the troubled Norwich side.

In such extraordinary circumstances, everyone involved is preparing as much as they possibly could. As Big Sam claimed, he has already issued so many defensive exercises for his team, his lads will likely ‘end up dreaming about stopping goals’. Mackem forward Fabio Borini pointed out: ‘They copied us. Usually (…) it’s us who change the manager two games before, then lose the first one and then win the derby’. Indeed – should Benítez win on Sunday, he will join SAFC bosses Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Allardyce himself on a list of managers, who’ve won their first Tyne Derby as a second BPL fixture after their appointment.

I really do expect this to happen. Magpies are at home, in front of fifty thousand repeatedly betrayed and yet devoted NUFC fans. They will be well aware that this is effectively their last chance; they will also be gaining a bit of confidence following a half-decent performance at King Power Stadium. And, last but not least: for maybe the first time in years, they will have a lot of faith in their new managers’ methods. This time, I don’t think The Sunderland Curse will be enough to outweigh those facts.

Probable line-ups:
Newcastle United: Eliott; Janmaat, Lascelles, Taylor, Dummett; Sissoko, Shelvey, Colback, Wijnaldum; Pérez, Mitrović.
Sunderland AFC: Mannone; Yedlin, Koné, Kaboul, van Aanholt; Kirchhoff; Borini, M’Vila, Rodwell, Khazri; Defoe.

Prediciton:
Newcastle 1-0 Sunderland.

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