Sunderland host Newcastle in the first Tyne-Wear derby of this season, with both teams looking to bounce back after defeats to the Manchester clubs. The Black Cats fell 0-3 to champions Manchester City and Alan Pardew's men failed to repeat their result from last season, when they beat Manchester United 3-0 at St James' Park.
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The Black Cats beat Wigan 1-0 at home on 29 September to record a first league win of the new season. Unfortunately for Martin O'Neill's men, they could not build on that victory and lost the next game to champions City.
The only silver lining in Sunderland's cloud, at the moment, is striker Steven Fletcher. The 25-year-old Scot has got his Stadium of Light career off to a flying start, with five goals in six appearances for the club and earned a recall to the Scottish national team. If he can score against Newcastle and keep this run of form going, he will surely prove an absolute bargain at the end of the season, even if he could cost the club up to £14m.
More importantly for Sunderland fans, the club is playing even better defensively. The back line has conceded only seven goals so far this season, second only to Arsenal and Chelsea. Moreover, they've already played the Gunners (0-0) and Liverpool (1-1) and secured excellent results in both games. The 0-3 defeat to City was their first league loss of the season, and O'Neill's side are defensively very well organised and difficult to break down.
Meanwhile, Newcastle United are beginning, perhaps, to feel the pressure of expectations. The Magpies had a stand-out season last year, surprising the league with some superb football and individual performances. The good news is Pardew has retained his stars from that campaign and added a few players, although not perhaps as many as he would have liked - the 51-year-old Englishman was reportedly looking for strikers and was linked with the returning Andy Carroll and Dutchman Luuk de Jong, but neither arrived. His side has so far failed to find the fluency and style they showed last year.
The St James' Park club has won only twice in seven league games this season and the first of those wins was on the opening weekend, when they beat Tottenham 2-1 at home. Problems regarding the front two - Senegalese internationals Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse - have meant goals are hard to come by, while injuries, at various times, to key defensive players, including holding midfielder Chieck Tiote and captain and central defender Fabricio Coloccini, among others, have meant Pardew has had to chop and change his team.
The midfield has also come in for its fair share of criticism, with French internationals Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye not exactly impressing at the moment. The home defeat to United will have been particularly galling for Pardew because his side managed a 3-0 win over Sir Alex Ferguson's side last year, to all but derail the Red Devils' title hopes.
Last Five Matches (most recent first): L W W D D
Last Match: Manchester City 3 - 0 Sunderland
Last Five Matches (most recent first): L W D L W
Last Match: Newcastle United 0 - 3 Manchester United
Sunderland: Martin O'Neill will be without captain and midfielder Lee Cattermole, who serves the last of a three-match suspension. The ex-Manchester United duo of Phil Bardsley and Wes Brown are recovering from ankle and knee injuries and are unlikely to be available. The club's defensive problems also include centre-back Titus Bramble, who has a hip flexor problem and may not be available. The good news is 23-year-old James McClean may make a comeback after a groin injury.
Spaniard Carlos Cuellar and another former United man, John O'Shea, will likely play in central defence, with Craig Gardner retaining his right-back role. The attention, though, will be on England U21 international Danny Rose, as he recovers from the racial abuse suffered in Serbia while on national duty.
The key for Sunderland will undoubtedly be the duo (trio, if McClean plays) of Stephane Sessegnon and Fletcher. Given the Magpies have their own defensive concerns, if either of these players can get a running jump on their markers, Sunderland will be confident of snatching something from this game.
Probable Line-Up: Mignolet; Gardner, Cuellar, O'Shea, Rose; Johnson, Colback, Larsson, McClean; Sessegnon; Fletcher
Newcastle United: Pardew's biggest injury headaches may be slowly fading. The club will now be able to call on first choice goalkeeper Tim Krul and key defenders Coloccini and Steven Taylor. However, none of the three is likely to feature in this game, because of a lack of match fitness. The good news is right back Danny Simpson is fully fit and will return to the starting line-up. Up front, Ba and Cisse will definitely start the game, despite witnessing the recent riots between supporters during the Ivory Coast v Senegal match in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
Pardew needs his midfield to start firing. Cabaye and Ben Arfa, in particular, have not been as influential as they were last season and although there are mitigating factors - injuries and fatigue from having played in the summer's European Championships - if Newcastle want to kick on from last season's achievements, they need to win these games.
Probable Line-Up: Harper; Simpson, Williamson, Perch, Santon; Ben Arfa, Cabaye, Tiote, Guttierez; Cisse, Ba
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