Cats Eye View: Sunderland's Jermain Defoe must start in biggest Tyne-Wear derby in a generation
A week on Sunday, Sam Allardyce takes his Sunderland side to St James's Park for the biggest Tyne-Wear derby in a generation.
There is so much riding on the high-pressure fixture, more than ever before in terms of financial rewards, with both clubs’ Premier League future hanging by a fine thread.
That 90 minutes is set to prove season-defining for both clubs in terms of which division they will be playing their football in next season.
Experience, a cool head and touch of quality will be needed. Step forward Jermain Defoe.
Allardyce produced something of a south coast surprise, with the club’s topscorer axed from the starting line-up for the 1-1 draw at St Mary’s on Saturday.
The 33-year-old had to make do with a place on the bench, with Allardyce instead opting to go with Dame N’Doye as the lone striker.
N’Doye has become a favourite of Allardyce’s since arriving on loan in the January transfer window.
Originally deployed in a wide right role, N’Doye was back in his favoured central position against Ronald Koeman’s Saints side.
Defoe’s demotion led to a mixed response among supporters, with fans split over his recent contribution to the cause.
With just one goal in his last six games, Defoe has recently struggled to be the talisman that Sunderland need in their fight for survival.
But despite a recent barren run – at least by his high standards – Defoe still remains the side’s biggest attacking threat and best hope of staying in the Premier League.
With three games inside eight days, fresh legs were needed in the starting line-up but it was still a shock to see Defoe, who came on to net his 11th Premier League goal of the season, dropped.
In a small room in the underbelly of St Mary’s, Allardyce later praised N’Doye for his contribution.
But, to this observer, the Senegal striker made little impression on proceedings.
N’Doye struggled to hold the ball up, in the first half especially, which would have helped Sunderland get further up the pitch and maintain possession.
And he caused Jose Fonte, Virgil van Dijk and Fraser Forster few problems.
With his height, the ex-Hull loanee should be winning more headers too, but he has struggled to impose himself enough on opposition defender’s since arriving at the Stadium of Light.
The 31-year-old was substituted in the second half, with Defoe entering the action and once again proving how invaluable he is.
In the 85th minute, Lamine Kone, in an unusually advanced position on the edge of the penalty area, laid the ball off to Defoe, who shot past the outstretched hand of Forster.
It was a clinical, poacher’s goal which sparked wild celebrations in the sold-out away end.
It seemed destined to be the winner, only for van Dijk’s heartbreaking equaliser.
In fairness to Defoe during his recent poor run, the service had been poor to him and he was left woefully isolated up front.
Against Southampton, Wahbi Khazri and Fabio Borini offered far greater support to first N’Doye and then Defoe, with Sunderland carving out several good chances.
On another day, the impressive Borini could have had two goals, but it was Defoe who made the difference.
And now that he is back among the goals, he MUST start in the pressure-cooker that is the Tyne-Wear derby.
Sunderland’s survival hopes will likely rest on the outcome of that game.
Defoe is the best striker at the club – still one of the best in the Premier League – and he must start at St James’s Park.
Sunderland could well be back in the relegation zone by the time the derby comes round, given that they have an enforced and unwanted two-week break.
They are going to need their big-game players on the pitch from the start.
Allardyce should start Defoe up front, with Borini and Khazri providing the ammo from the flanks.
Do that and Sunderland will be well-placed to make it seven wins in a row over their North East neighbours and fierce relegation rivals.