Newcastle host Sunderland on Sunday afternoon in what will be the 146th Tyne Wear Derby. The form book can often be thrown out of the window when it comes to these sorts of games, but out of the 2 top North East teams, who is stronger?
Newcastle had a flying start to the season managing 11 games without defeat, before finally falling at the hands of Man City. At our peak, we sat in 3rd and up until recently looked like we could pose a serious threat to the top 4. Since our defeat at the Etihad, our form has lacked any real consistency, picking up back to back wins only twice, and winning only 5 of a possible 14. Victories against the likes of Manchester United have shown that when on form, we have the quality to threaten, whilst heavy defeats to Fulham, Norwich and Tottenham illustrate that defensively we can be very poor when rattled. Currently sitting in 6th but with tough games against Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and City still to come, hanging on to 7th place and with it, European qualification, would be a massive achievement for a team that was in the Championship 2 seasons ago.
Sunderland meanwhile, have fared rather oppositely. After an appalling start to the season under Steve Bruce, they sat in 16th place, just 2 points above the drop zone when he was sacked in November. Since Martin O’Neill’s arrival, they have looked a different team, winning 7 of their last 12, including a famous 1-0 against Manchester City. In doing so, Sunderland have climbed from relegation candidates, to European contenders, now sitting in 9th place. Poor recent performances against both Arsenal, and most recently West Brom, have led to suggestions that O'Neills honeymoon is over, though it is unlikely that any of the players will be keen for a repeat of the 4-0 drubbing they received last weekend.
Player-Wise, Newcastle have shown that quality can be bought on a budget, with Davide Santon and Yohan Cabaye both impressing in their first seasons of English football. It is Demba Ba, however, who has surprised the most. With his 16 goals for the season, he his only bettered by Wayne Rooney and Arsenal frontman Robin Van Persie. Signing on a free in the summer, Ba has proved to be excellent value for Newcastle and has alerted some of Europe’s top clubs. The addition of Papiss Cisse in January saw us strengthen the front line further. As to whether his big money move from Germany will pay off is yet to be seen, but with a good record for Bundesliga basement boys, Freiberg, he certainly looks promising.
For Sunderland, much investment was made in the summer, as the likes of Seb Larsson, Conor Wickham, Nicklas Bendtner, John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Craig Gardner all joined, in attempt to take Sunderland from perennial mid-tablers, to top 6 European contenders. After several injuries, they have been forced to play much of the season with attacking midfielder Stephane Sessegnon as their solitary forward, although the return of an in-form Fraizer Campbell in recent weeks has increased their chances in front of goal. James Mclean was another new signing in the summer, tipped to only play a role in the reserves this year. However, after a string of good performances it appears that the Mackems may have unearthed a gem, with the young Irish winger showing promising ability in his opening 10 games for the club.
If pushed, I would probably be biased and say Newcastle are the better team. Strength in depth is somewhat of an issue for both teams, with each side looking stretched at times throughout the campaign. Currently, Sunderland have the better form, although home advantage and a habit of winning over the neighbours may aid Newcastle in attempting to extend our unbeaten run against the Mackems at St James’ Park, stretching back to 2001.