Sunday's Premier League football starts with an absolutely huge Tyne-Wear derby. Michael Cox looks at the tactics, while Alan Thompson assesses the odds...
"Wahbi Khazri's set-piece delivery could be crucial"
Newcastle v Sunderland
Sunday 1:30, Sky Sports 1.
Match Odds: Newcastle 2.26/5, Sunderland 3.814/5, The Draw 3.55/2.
Tyne-Wear derbies are always feisty, but rarely are they as important as this.
With Newcastle and Sunderland battling with Norwich for a single survival place, and Sunderland starting this game just a single point ahead of Newcastle, a victory for either side could be absolutely crucial in the relegation battle.
This is also Rafael Benitez's first game at St James' Park since surprisingly taking the Newcastle job. He's had a fair few run-ins with Sam Allardyce over the years - both will be absolutely desperate to record a victory here, for both personal and professional reasons.
Benitez has taken charge of a side with serious injury problems. Newcastle have no fewer than 11 players currently unavailable, which means he doesn't have many options and is likely to name the same starting XI that was defeated 1-0 at top-of-the-table Leicester on Monday evening. He would hope Chancel Mbemba is fit to return, but Jamaal Lascelles is likely to continue alongside Steven Taylor.
Benitez has reformatted Newcastle's midfield by using Georginio Wijnaldum as the number ten in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, which makes sense as the Dutchman has impressed with his contribution in the final third this season, but had usually been used in a wider role. Benitez has made him the focal point of the side, and against Leicester used Ayoze Perez out wide. The lively Spaniard offers counter-attacking pace, although he'll also need to use his speed defensively too, as he'll be up against the rapid DeAndre Yedlin, who loves flying forward on the overlap.
Moussa Sissoko will play from the opposite flank, and will also have to defend against Patrick van Aanholt. However, Newcastle's best approach for dealing with Sunderland's attacking full-backs might be to ask Aleksandar Mitorvic to drift wide, testing the pace of John O'Shea, who should come in for Younes Kaboul. Sunderland's defence looks poor when attacked with pace into the channels, and therefore Newcastle must take every opportunity to exploit gaps between players.
Newcastle will probably dominate possession here. They have Wijnaldum attempting to create from advanced positions, and Jonjo Shelvey trying to dictate play from much deeper, spreading play to the flanks. Vurnon Anita is also a useful, reliable passer.
Sunderland, on the other hand, have more scrappy players in the centre of the pitch. Yann M'Vila will attempt to break up play and Jan Kickhoff will sit deep in front of the defence, almost like a bonus centre-back. Wahbi Khazri is a more creative player, but most focus primarily on his defensive tasks.
Sunderland will attack through pace rather than guile. Jermain Defoe will lead the line, and is capable of turning hopeful long passes into something more promising, and he's likely to be supported by Fabio Borini and Dame N'Doye from the flanks. N'Doye could be a physical threat, especially if Jack Colback continues at left-back, while Borini is hard-working and might be able to expose Daryl Janmaat's tendency to get caught out high up the pitch.
Set-pieces might also be crucial in such a tight game, and this is where Sunderland might excel. N'Doye is a good aerial threat, as is centre-back Lamine Kone. Most importantly, though, Khazri can whip in devilish deliveries.
Sunderland have won the last six matches against Newcastle, and have kept clean sheets in the last four of those derbies. This game is likely to be extremely tight - one goal could win it.
The Betfair Trader's View - Alan Thompson
Every game from now until the end of the season is going to be massive due to the predicament that both these clubs find themselves in. But if Premier League survival wasn’t enough for this Tyne-Wear derby, ex-Newcastle boss Sam Allardyce is in charge at Sunderland and it is Rafa Benitez's first home game in charge of Newcastle United.
The Geordies have only won one of their last seven and their last display at home was a humiliating 3-1 defeat against Bournemouth, which ultimately meant the end for Steve McClaren. The appointment of Benitez was swift (if not professionally handled) and, although Newcastle were beaten at the King Power stadium, there was more urgency, commitment and structure to their play.
Sunderland have dragged themselves out of the relegation places with just one defeat in their last five and have an excellent recent record against the Magpies. They are unbeaten in their last eight meetings with their neighbours, winning the last six and keeping a clean sheet in the last four.
It’s a game that Newcastle simply must win because, while nothing after this game will be confirmed, the damage another defeat to their local rivals would do to confidence, let alone their points tally, would be very difficult to recover from.
I am going to back Newcastle to win the game at 2.245/4 but I will also be having a saver for that stake on 1-1 at 7.413/2.