Newcastle v Sunderland
Sunday 21st December 2014
Sky Sports 1
I'm not going to lie; it's been tough watching Alan Pardew rise like a phoenix from the ashes and guide Newcastle up the Premier League table in recent weeks. At the beginning of October I genuinely thought, even with local bias pushed to one side, that they were doomed.
What makes it more frustrating is the way that they've gone about it - scraping narrow wins through unflattering performances and fortuitous goals. Epitomised by the win against Chelsea, which further perpetuated this country's media's love affiar with the great unwashed.
But enough about them lot. We've gone into the last three derbies with various recent form figures and have come out of each of them with all three points. We haven't lost any of the last five and Pardew has only guided them lot to one win in seven games against us. Perhaps it's a good thing that he managed to turn things around and keep his job.
Despite recent success in this fixture, our form so far this season does concern me, however. I like Gus Poyet and buy into what he is trying to do at the club, whilst also understand that he needs time and for this season and perhaps also the next it's about building on what we have and putting a foundation in place. Merely avoiding the need for a repeat of last season's 'Great Escape' would be good enough for me this time around. But yet I can't help feeling that his obsession over Fabio Borini in the summer transfer market was a huge mistake.
Fair enough, have your priority targets, but there has to be a back-up option in place should that desired signing not materialise for whatever reason. Maybe there was, and maybe it just wasn't made public. But the crux of the matter is that we are left with a desperately inadequate Jozy Altidore and an injury-prone Steven Fletcher as our main offensive options, while for some unknown reason Poyet obsessively chooses to play last season's saviour Connor Wickham out wide.
We've become a very tough side to beat - 10 draws from 16 league games are testament that - and, as I said above, the foundations are clearly being set in place, but we don't have anyone to regularly score the goals that will get us wins. Papiss Cisse, no matter how fortuitous some of his goals have been, is an all too near example of the difference a good goalscorer can make.
I actually think that Newcastle and ourselves are not too dissimilar in the way that we are set up: both are very difficult to beat. The difference between our 16 points and their 23 points is that while we've drawn five of our last six, they've won five of their last nine by the odd goal.
Moving on from that point, and one notable, and perhaps significant, change that I have seen from us in the past few games against Newcastle is that we appear to enter the game with clear heads. You often hear players trying to play down derby matches from a professional point of view and talk about how they have to approach the game as if it were any other. I used to think that was just some generic nonsense spouted to the media, but our players have backed that up in recent derbies with an average of just two yellow cards per game - none of which have been shown to Lee Cattermole!!
To paraphrase the words of Rudyard Kipling - "If you can keep your head when all about you, Are losing theirs and blaming it on you... you'll be a Man, my son"
There'll be a rush to back high numbers in the bookings markets this weekend - there always is for local derbies - but my advice from a betting perspective would to go against the tide and hit the low numbers at big prices.
We've become the Premier League's draw specialists, and perhaps that's as good as we can hope for at a time when proven goalscorers wearing red and white shirts are hard to come by. As much as I'd love - really love - to see us make it four wins in a row against everyone's 'second favourite club', realistically I'd be more than happy to take a point from the game. And then hopefully see a striker arrive at the club in January, so we can systematically take them apart at the Stadium of Light in April.
Back The Draw @ 3.55
You've read the Sunderland view - now see what a Newcastle fan is saying ahead of the derby!