It’s that time of the year again in the North-East as two of the region’s biggest clubs go head to head once again as Sunderland take on fierce rivals Newcastle in the Tyne-Wear derby.
Arguably one of the most, if not the most, ferocious derbies in the country, this clash is one that every Geordie and Mackem looks for every year when the fixtures list is released.
Often a source of much anger, hatred and violence, the match regularly spills into a chaotic mix of rash tackles, red cards and animal abuse.
Safe to say that we’ll be expecting more of the same this weekend when Newcastle arrive at the Stadium of Light, with the match taking on even more importance for the home side.
Sunderland have been in woeful form this season, with just one point from their eight games so far and one managerial casualty in Paolo di Canio.
But now Gus Poyet is at the helm, charged with reviving the Black Cats’ fortunes and guiding them to safety. Unfortunately for the Uruguayan, his tenure got off to the worst possible start with a crushing 4-0 defeat at the hands of Swansea City.
The fallout of that match, other than reaffirming Phil Bardsley’s status as public enemy No.1, has been particularly tough for Sunderland supporters.
It served to remind them that they’d been down this road so many times with numerous false dawns coming with each managerial appointment.
Poyet is already at a crossroads. Win against Newcastle and get the fans immediately onside. Lose however, and the club continues their descent into despair.
So what can he do to maximise his chances of coming away with all three points on Sunday?
If Sunderland fans didn’t hate him enough before their defeat to Swansea, they do now. Bardsley is symptomatic of Sunderland’s malaise as part of a group of players perceived by supporters to be giving minimal effort and caring little for the cause.
The former Manchester United youth player’s casino antics and Instagram faux pas has effectively made him persona non grata amongst the Sunderland faithful and it is generally accepted that Poyet made a mistake in recalling him to the first-team last weekend.
In addition, a Squawka Performance Score of -28 reflected his inept display last weekend and Poyet would be rid of a potential headache and boost his chances of winning by leaving the Scotsman out of the squad altogether.
Shake Up The Team
Poyet could stamp his authority by shaking up his first-team for the derby, with the line-up against Swansea largely the same team as those fielded under Di Canio.
The Black Cats boss has options in Charas Mavrias and Fabio Borini who he could turn to in place of Adam Johnson, Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore who have disappointed so far with the latter two recording combined performance score of -30.
Altidore in particular has been in poor form for Sunderland, averaging just one shot per game with a 57 per cent shot accuracy rate and failing to score. Borini’s movement off the ball and work rate could be a different proposition altogether.
Introducing players who are hungry for success to the team can only help the team’s relationship with the supporters, particularly when they can see the desire of the players to win, especially in a derby.
Poyet was forced to leave the South Korean out of his squad against parent side Swansea, but Ki is now available once more for Sunday’s clash.
A very intelligent player and tidy in possession, Ki is an ideal fit for Poyet’s style of play and could potentially make a very good partnership with the reinvigorated Lee Cattermole.
It’s no surprise that Sunderland’s better performances have come when the South Korean is playing well, with his 90 per cent pass completion rate helping the Black Cats to dominate the second half against Liverpool.
Overall, Poyet will need to seen to make changes and go about rooting out Sunderland’s rotten core before the fans dare to hope once again.
A re-freshened Sunderland performance against their fiercest rivals will go a long way to restoring some pride in the team, even if it means yet another defeat.