CHRIS YOUNG’S BIG GAME VERDICT:
THERE was a brief handshake and a quick word at May’s League Managers Association awards, but Martin O’Neill and Alan Pardew are hardly the bosom buddies depicted by some reports this week.
Pardew’s touchline conduct on O’Neill’s derby bow last March severely rankled with the Sunderland manager.
So it should have done.
Had there been multiple camera footage of the dug-outs, Pardew would have been facing a punishment at least on a par with the two-game ban incurred this season for his slight shove on linesman Peter Kirkup.
During the significant fall-out of what was one of the most captivating derbies in years, O’Neill immediately set his sights on his first taste of facing the Magpies on Wearside.
O’Neill has been longing for this game ever since.
While his predecessor Steve Bruce hated these affairs – an emotion which inevitably translated to the players – O’Neill will relish Sunday’s encounter and the fireworks that accompany it.
O’Neill’s derby record at Celtic and Aston Villa alone speaks volumes about his ability to motivate teams in the cauldron atmosphere of facing the nearest and dearest.
And it will undoubtedly be cauldron-like on Sunday at the Stadium of Light.
The transfer of the away fans to the upper tier is a notable boost for Sunderland in this game above all others. Nine of Newcastle’s 13 goals on the ground have come in front of their travelling support.
But then the omens and advantage has been in Sunderland’s favour before against the Magpies, yet they have only contrived to profit a pathetic five times in the last 45 years.
To amend that dreadful record and finally provide some tonic to supporters, Sunderland need to ensure their attack banishes the splutters and consists of more than the Steven Fletcher one-man band.
Chief among those who need to take responsibility are Sunderland’s two widemen, who are still to reach anywhere near their potential in the Premier League this season.
Injuries and illness have not helped Adam Johnson since his £10million arrival from Manchester City, but after returning to Wearside following England’s delayed draw in Poland, the Easington winger faces the pressure of being a potential match-winner.
Similarly James McClean, after shaking off a groin strain which ruled him out of Ireland duty, needs to banish those lingering doubts over a “second season syndrome”.
O’Neill’s faith in McClean is undimmed though, leaving him with an intriguing dilemma over whether to shake-up his central midfield partnership of Seb Larsson and Jack Colback.
Sunderland have doubtless missed Lee Cattermole during the skipper’s suspension and this game, more than any other, is one that the 24-year-old relishes, albeit the red mist descended within 60 seconds of kick-off in March.
The double-act of Larsson and Colback hasn’t necessarily convinced in Cattermole’s absence and that engine room is the key area on Sunday against Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye.
David Meyler and David Vaughan are both options for O’Neill, as is a recall for fit-again Phil Bardsley, allowing Craig Gadner to revert to a midfield role.
As gambles go, it would be a big one to throw the zealous Bardsley into a derby without being match fit after missing the entirety of Sunderland’s pre-season.
Pardew wouldn’t require much inspiration to switch Hatem Ben Arfa to the left and test Bardsley’s conditioning.
But then Newcastle’s back-line won’t necessarily be sharp either.
Tim Krul, Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini – perennially colossal in these games – are all likely to be recalled by Pardew after recovering from injury.
Nevertheless, arguably the key decision for the Newcastle manager is whether to start with the suddenly less prolific Papiss Demba Cisse or opt for Sunderland’s derby nemesis Shola Ameobi.
In all other games, that would be a no-brainer, but then in this one, Ameobi becomes unstoppable.
Pardew may opt to keep Ameobi in reserve and hope Demba Ba can continue his purple patch to render the Tynesider’s contribution less pivotal.
Ba is as key to Newcastle’s ambitions as Fletcher is for Sunderland’s, and in what promises to be a precariously tight affair, the prowess of either could well decide it.
Sunderland have to believe Fletcher can be that match-winner, particularly as the mental belief in the home dressing room will be so crucial on Sunday.
After taking eight points against the Black Cats since winning promotion, this crop of Magpies undoubtedly have the confidence edge when it comes to the derby.
They know what it takes to win and what the ramifications of that are.
Other than Bardsley, Sunderland’s players don’t.
They must overcome the red and white mental barrier, which spans uncomfortable generations, of the Black Cats largely emerging second-best in this meeting.
Bruce couldn’t manage to conquer that hurdle with his steeds.
But O’Neill can.
Verdict: Home win