Chris Young: Tyne-Wear derby will be decided by the battle of the dire defences
Light-hearted copy-cat accusations have emerged from the Sunderland camp at the timing of the managerial change at St James's Park.
Let’s face it, Rafa Benitez’s appointment at Newcastle has put a different spin on Sunday’s showdown, particularly given his history with Sam Allardyce.
Steve McClaren’s position was completely untenable last week and it was inevitable that he was relieved of his duties; however boisterously the Sunderland contingent pleaded for him not to be sacked during the Black Cats’ draw at Southampton.
But by appointing a manager two games before the derby, Newcastle supremos Lee Charnley and Mike Ashley will surely have considered the pattern of the last four Sunderland managers, who have all triumphed against the Magpies in their second game at the helm.
Benitez even managed to lose his dug-out debut on Monday night, as did derby victors Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce.
However, Newcastle’s defeat at Leicester demonstrated that Benitez can only work with the tools at his disposal. For all last week’s appointment may have sparked enthusiasm among black and white supporters, he is no miracle worker.
The ex-Real Madrid boss still has the same problems as McClaren.
For all their extra huff and puff, the Premier League’s second lowest scorers never looked like improving those statistics at the King Power Stadium. Moussa Sissoko and Aleksandar Mitrovic comedically running into each other was the closest they came.
And at the back, Newcastle look so oh-so-vulnerable in the heart of their defence, even more so in the absence of sidelined Fabricio Coloccini and Chancel Mbemba.
It’s that area where Sunday’s nerve-shredding showdown will be decided.
This is the battle of the dire defences.
Both have conceded 54 goals in 29 league games, Sunderland haven’t kept a clean sheet since November, while Rob Elliot has picked the ball out of his net 10 times in the last four encounters.
Doubtless, Benitez will have spent this week on defensive drills and making his side more compact, but Allardyce has done similar over the last five months and Sunderland still can’t muster a shut-out.
In a game where the sky-high stakes will inevitably prompt a glut of anxiety, it’s a test of which defence holds their nerve and stands strong.
It isn’t going to be a goal-fest. One mistake or one piece of slack marking could decide it, and potentially have dire repercussions for the losers.
Allardyce has a decision to make over whether to use Younes Kaboul or John O’Shea as a partner to Lamine Kone, and there’s merits to both options.
O’Shea boasts the experience of these occasions and is the organising presence at the heart of the Sunderland defence, yet Kaboul immediately click with Kone at Southampton and the French-speaking pair inject real power into the heart of the back four.
And if Sunderland do have an advantage heading into the derby, then they have at least found the knack of scoring goals and creating chances over the last half-dozen games.
There were painfully frustrating blanks against Manchester City and West Ham, yet there is some conviction around Sunderland’s approach play in the final third.
Newcastle can’t say the same; just four goals in the last seven games and no real chances at Leicester, despite what was supposedly an ‘improved’ display.
If both sides fail to find the net on Sunday, then it’s arguably a better result for Sunderland.
The Black Cats are currently the best performers of the three sides realistically fighting against relegation, with a purpose, strategy and commitment to their play after the capture of the four first-team January signings.
But Benitez’s appointment creates the threat of Newcastle harnessing a ‘bounce effect’ from the arrival of the Spaniard.
Sunderland have a chance to nip that in the bud.
Despite the invariable upturn from a new manager, it’s difficult to sustain the momentum.
Think back and Paolo Di Canio only recorded eight points from those life-saving seven games at the end of the 2012-13 campaign.
After nine points from his first six games, Allardyce then lost the next five.
Benitez probably requires 12-13 points from the run-in, particularly as one of Sunderland or Norwich will inevitably string a decent run together at some stage. One of the strugglers always does.
If Sunderland can deny Benitez victory on his St James’s bow on Sunday, then it immediately further dampens any sense of optimism among both players and supporters that the problems under McClaren can be instantly banished.
If Sunderland can make it seven-in-a-row... well, the Black Cats could have inflicted a fatal blow on their bitterest geographical and relegation rivals.