Chris Young’s big-match verdict: The ultimate test of Sunderland’s revival

Sunderland's Craig Gardner battles with Keith Andrews of West Brom.
Sunderland's Craig Gardner battles with Keith Andrews of West Brom.
Have your say

MARTIN O’Neill can point to a proud record in the comparably fierce surroundings of an Old Firm skirmish – winning 17 of his 28 encounters with Celtic against the Gers.

But previous military honours in the battle with the neighbours doesn’t necessarily equate to success in the roulette warfare of derby spoils.

After all, Steve Bruce won four and drew two of his first six meetings with Aston Villa as Birmingham boss and look what happened to Sunderland under his stewardship against the Magpies.

For many, Sunday’s high noon showdown will be the ultimate test of O’Neill’s Wearside resurgence.

Up to now, he has passed every hurdle with flying colours, but then this is the one which can make or a break a season. The respective fortunes of the two clubs immediately after August’s Stadium of Light meeting is testament to that.

Perhaps the one aspect in O’Neill’s favour which hamstrung Bruce, is that Sunderland are not firm favourites this weekend – an expectation that surely played a part in seeing the Black Cats freeze so dramatically in the last three derby meetings.

Sunderland were heavily tipped prior to the 5-1 rout with Newcastle looking to oust Chris Hughton. They were then expected to gain revenge the following January and were certainly expected to set the record straight in August with the Magpies in apparent disarray.

This time around there is little to separate the pair – both happily nestled in the top 10, both boasting aspirations of European qualification, either in the cup or league, and both suffering a couple of stuttering results over recent weeks.

It’s a nonsensical notion considering derbies are notoriously illogical in their outcome, but there is a genuine unpredictability about the outcome of Sunday’s encounter.

Arguably the only certainty is that Sunderland cannot surely be as bad as they were at West Brom last weekend when every facet of their performance was so significantly below the high standards set by O’Neill.

Despite such a woeful display, O’Neill is unlikely to make sweeping changes.

One is likely to be enforced with the calf injury to Phil Bardsley, although it may have the implication of providing a more offensive Sunderland line-up which O’Neill would have considered anyway.

There are a few permutations to replacing Bardsley at right-back, but with John O’Shea looking far more comfortable at centre-half, it’s tough to see the former Manchester United man returning there.

The more likely scenario is Craig Gardner reverting from a midfield role, with a re-jig likely to see England international Fraizer Campbell partner Stephane Sessegnon in attack.

Few supporters would argue with such a positive strategy and if Sessegnon can drop deep to help out Jack Colback and Lee Cattermole in the midfield battle with the imposing Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, that is potentially the area where the game will be won or lost.

There’s no arguing that the secret to Newcastle’s success has been boasting a side with a fiercely strong backbone – Tim Krul, Fabricio Coloccini, Tiote and Cabaye and then Demba Ba up front.

But it is in the midfield where Sunderland need to be strong. Cattermole must be disciplined in the physical confrontation with Tiote, while both the skipper and Colback must work tirelessly to close down Cabaye and ensure the Frenchman isn’t given a glut of space to spray passes around.

Sunderland will receive a boost if January signing Papiss Demba Cisse fails to recover from the groin strain which has hampered him this week, with the Senegalese international scoring in both his first two outings at the Sports Direct Arena.

But Ba is hardly short on goal-getting ability, while Cisse’s potential replacement Shola Ameobi has the Midas touch against Sunderland anyway.

The outcome on Sunday ultimately doesn’t revolve around the individuals in the Newcastle side.

Sunderland’s fate rests on whether they can collectively cope with the vitriol from the terraces, the unceasing pace of the game and the knowledge that every kick matters.

Bruce was unable to install that sense of composure in his players on derby day and they froze under the weight of pleading from Wearside.

O’Neill has already been lauded as many as the Messiah.

If he can reverse the derby jinx and win on Sunday, then a sainthood awaits.

Verdict: Draw