Ever wondered why most big derbies in England have early kick-offs? Despite it being dressed in other disguises, it is mainly to prevent fans spending the entire day pre-game at the local pub, thus arriving at an intense, passion-filled derby game ready to go to war. Instead, with an early kick off, the time between the opening of these bars in the morning and the beginning of the game is much more limited. In theory, leaving the fans slightly less inebriated arriving at the stadium. In theory.
The truth is most Sunderland and Newcastle fans will probably not sleep at all the night before this Sunday’s clash between the North East rivals.. Such is the meaning of the game to them, no other fixture remaining for the two side’s comes close. Win on Sunday, 21 Oct. 2012 and fans have local bragging rights for at least 173 days, until the return leg at Sports Direct Arena (or is it now St. James Park again?). Lose, and that is a long time to have to endure torment in the office, in the shops and on the streets.
Form – Sunderland
Both teams come into this match with similar form. Both come off their last Premier League game with a 3-0 loss against Manchester opponents – Sunderland’s loss against City being the first of their season. They are something of a draw specialist side this season. With only 7 goals conceded so far they have a better defensive record than Manchester United, Manchester City and Everton (all in the top 4) so far. The problem lies in attack, with an over reliance on summer signing Steven Fletcher, who has scored all 5 goals for them in the Premier League this season. Fletcher will be the third different Sunderland striker in the last 3 meetings against Newcastle, last season saw Nicklas Bendtner and Asamoah Gyan starting at St James and the Stadium of Light respectively.
Fletcher has had extra spotlight on him this past week due to his return to international football for Scotland. He played 90 minutes against Wales and 76 minutes against Belgium, and Newcastle fans will be hoping the 2 games within 5 days will have taken their toll on Sunderland’s main attacking threat.
Key players missing
Sunderland will be without James McClean (injury) and Lee Cattermole (suspension), with the former being a man Alan Pardew holds in high regard (Pardew named McClean as one of his Top 10 players to watch at the Euros). Cattermole is one never far away from the eye of a storm and picked up a red card in the derby at St James Park last season. It will be disappointing not to be able to see his battle against Cheick Tiote, going by last season, it was likely to be fiery.
Newcastle are hopeful of the return from injury of three key players – Steven Taylor, Fabricio Coloccini and Tim Krul. If none recover in time, the defence will be lacking in leadership and build up ability, evident against Manchester United. James Perch is a utility fix-it man, not a commanding centre back and Mike Williamson still needs to find his form that he was showing in the second half of last season.
Jonas Gutierrez will need to double up with Davide Santon against Newcastle fan, Adam Johnson. Johnson, a classic inverted winger, has extra motivation to play against the team that he grew up supporting and rejected him as a 12 year old academy player.
Johnson is one of the best at 1v1s in the Premier League but can be reluctant to track a fullback, hence Manchester City’s willingness to let him go and bring in Scott Sinclair. Newcastle will need to look to counter attack into the space behind Johnson on the left and attack Craig Gardner.
Danny Rose will have a lot on his mind after the eventful week he’s had. Martin O’Neill will be encouraging Rose to let go of all thoughts and frustrations of the appalling racial abuse Rose received in Serbia. He has a tough task trying to contain the talented Hatem Ben Arfa (another 1v1 specialist). Rose’s speed will aid him and he will no doubt be watching tapes of Rafael’s brilliant defensive performance against Ben Arfa in the 3-0 win at Newcastle 2 weeks ago.
Tiote and Cabaye will need to keep an eye on Stèphane Sességnon, who likes to roam in the space between midfield and defence. Sességnon will need to win set pieces in dangerous areas to allow Carlos Cuéllar, John O’Shea or possibly Titus Bramble to test the Newcastle defence from corners and free kicks (Newcastle have conceded recently this way and looked vulnerable defending attacks from the wings against Manchester United and Reading). Newcastle will be hoping Krul and, especially, Taylor are fit as both are good at defending set pieces.
On the other side, Sunderland may shift Sebastian Larsson out wide and bring in David Vaughan to cover the injured McClean. Vaughan and Jack Colback (or whoever starts in central midfield) will have a tough task trying to press the main source of Newcastle’s tempo and rhythm – the central midfield partnership of Cabaye and Tiote. Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba will likely start upfront for Newcastle, however don’t count out the man nicknamed ‘The Mackem Slayer’, Shola Ameobi, due to his incredible form against Sunderland (Ameobi has scored 7 times against Sunderland in his career). Ameobi was unlucky not to start against Manchester United, who’s defence had looked vulnerable to physicality recently, and will be pushing for a start.
Usually with derbies everything goes out the window – form, ability, tactics. It boils down to who can keep their head amongst the noise and atmosphere in a crazy afternoon. Its a game that relies on experienced players to guide the youngsters. Expect fireworks.
Davide Santon: “The Milan derby is a very important game but not like this one. Here there is more rivalry, everybody thinks about the game, it’s fantastic.”