SUNDERLAND meet Newcastle at St James’ Park on Sunday in one of the most crucial Tyne and Wear derby battles in recent history.
Victory for the 13th-placed Magpies would all but end their fears of being sucked into the battle against relegation and severely worsen the Black Cats’ plight, with Paolo di Canio’s men hovering anxiously above the relegation zone.
Here we look at the key battles which could help to decide a tense encounter:
STEVEN TAYLOR v DANNY GRAHAM
Taylor, perhaps Newcastle’s most combative defender, missed last night’s heartbreaking Europa League exit at the hands of Benfica with a knee injury sustained in training, but could return for a game he relishes more than most. One of the few Geordies in the squad, he will lead by example as he looks for a shut-out which would deny Sunderland the win they crave. Newcastle fan Graham finds himself cast in the role of main man following Steven Fletcher’s untimely injury, but is yet to open his account for the club he joined in January. He could hardly choose a better day to do so.
YOHAN CABAYE v ALFRED N’DIAYE
Cabaye quite simply makes the Magpies tick. The France international’s ability to find a defence-splitting pass and contribute goals from set-pieces has proved invaluable during an injury-interrupted season and if he is at his best, Sunderland could face an uphill task. Compatriot N’Diaye arrived on Wearside during the winter transfer window and has enjoyed a mixed start to his career in English football. A powerful runner from central midfield, he will be one of the men charged with getting into the opposition box as well as attempting to break up play further down field.
PAPISS CISSE v JOHN O’SHEA
Cisse’s five goals in seven games have taken his tally for the season to 13, the same as he managed during the second half of the last campaign, and the fact that he also had two disallowed against Benfica last night suggests he is in a rich vein of form. His late winners against Stoke, Anzhi Makhachkala and Fulham have proved invaluable and Sunderland cannot afford to take their eyes off him for a second. O’Shea, Black Cats skipper in the absence of the injured Lee Cattermole, has not been used to losing during a career which brought him a wealth of honours at former club Manchester United. His derby experience could prove key as he attempts to marshal his troops in a hostile atmosphere at St James’.