Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Take inspiration

Newcastle United's Jonas Gutierrez (right) and Sunderland's Craig Gardner battle for the ball.
Newcastle United's Jonas Gutierrez (right) and Sunderland's Craig Gardner battle for the ball.
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SPEND AN HOUR in Paolo Di Canio’s company and his enthusiasm becomes infectious.

It has proved so for his players; the gritty, down-to-earth Phil Bardsley describing the Italian’s team-talks as “inspiring” in today’s Echo.

The bulk of Sunderland supporters are also beginning to swing behind Di Canio, particularly when he issues such passion-fuelled statements as the derby counting for “2,000 games”.

Maybe, just maybe, Di Canio is the one to lift Sunderland’s derby curse.

But Wearside has been here before.

The false dawns ahead of tackling the neighbours have predominated for the last three decades and beyond.

Whether firm favourites or slight underdogs, Sunderland have largely wilted in the derby cauldron and Newcastle have emerged victorious, whether they have played well or not.

Last season’s 1-1 draw on Tyneside was a notable exception, but a return of just one win in the last 16 meetings with the Magpies is a miserable one.

Will this year be any different?

Although it may count for nought on Sunday, a winless run now stretching back almost three months hardly gives encouragement.

And despite Alan Pardew’s laughable claims that Sunderland are “favourites” after an energy-sapping Europa League quarter-final for the Magpies last night, the relegation pressure on Newcastle has been eased significantly with their last-gasp win against Fulham last weekend.

For all Di Canio has injected fresh life into Sunderland’s campaign too, he still needs a win – any win – before he can be contemplated as a survival saviour.

But without needing to whisper it quietly, there were significantly shoots of recovery at Stamford Bridge last Sunday.

The opening 45 minutes was as good as Sunderland have played all season – the intent, organisation and ball retention all showing a marked improvement from the stodgy final days of the Martin O’Neill era.

And after the benefits of an extra week on the training ground, Di Canio is unwaveringly confident of further improvement on Sunday.

The loss of Craig Gardner is a significant one though – one of the few players who has remained consistent with his performances throughout Sunderland’s slump.

Di Canio likes Gardner and the Brummie has undoubtedly added some bite in the middle of the park over the last two games after returning to his favoured midfield role.

Replacing Gardner, who will be sat with the away fans in the Leazes End, is THE key decision for Di Canio.

Yohan Cabaye is the lynchpin of this Newcastle side, while fellow midfielder Moussa Sissoko has been integral to the Magpies’ push away from the bottom three since arriving in January.

David Vaughan has returned to training this week and Seb Larsson could slot inside alongside Alfred N’Diaye, but Tynesider Jack Colback must be the favourite to offer a like-to-like replacement for Gardner.

Di Canio also has a dilemma up front between fit-again Danny Graham and Connor Wickham.

The latter impressed on only his second Premier League start of the season at Chelsea and it would be harsh to relegate the 20-year-old to the bench.

Graham holds the experience factor though and this, more than any other game, would earn instant adulation among Sunderland’s faithful for the boyhood Newcastle fan.

There are certainly avenues to exploit in Newcastle’s defence, particularly with persistent stand-out derby performer Fabricio Coloccini absent.

But likewise, Newcastle will sense blood among Sunderland’s back four, with Papiss Cisse netting three injury-time winners in three home league outings, Shola Ameobi always proving a nemesis to the Black Cats and Hatem Ben Arfa making a sooner-than-expected recovery.

Di Canio will have to choose whether he sticks with the recalled Matt Kilgallon or reinstates the recovered Carlos Cuellar alongside John O’Shea at centre-half.

But Di Canio will already know which one he wants to incorporate in his strategy.

Underneath the exterior of gesticulating and rampant monologue of passion, Di Canio is a wily operator, as he proved with that first half at Chelsea.

If he can implement a blueprint to oversee victory on Tyneside, both local pride and Premier League survival will transform in an instant.

Verdict: Draw