Has so much ever rested on the outcome of a Tyne-Wear derby?
Sunderland and Newcastle United go head-to-head a week on Sunday at St James’s Park in a game dubbed the most important in a generation.
And there is a LOT at stake. Premier League survival could potentially rest on the outcome of the 156th meeting.
With survival comes a share of next season’s bumper £5billion television deal – which is worth upwards of £100million to each of the 20 top-flight clubs.
Relegation to the Championship doesn’t bear thinking about, but, with Aston Villa seemingly doomed and the bottom four cut adrift, it looks very much like two more from Sunderland, Newcastle and Norwich City.
The Canaries hold two ace cards in that they still have to play both Sunderland and Newcastle at home in the space of two weeks next month.
But before then, there is the small matter of the Tyne-Wear derby.
Here are six ways Sam Allardyce’s Sunderland can beat Newcastle and extend their six-game winning streak:
Set pieces could be key – and Sunderland have Wahbi Khazri in their armoury:
In January, Sunderland forked out £9million on Khazri from Bordeaux and he has settled in seamlessly at the Stadium of Light.
With one goal – against Manchester United – and three assists, Khazri has quickly established himself as a terrace favourite.
And the Tunisian international’s goal against Louis van Gaal’s side direct from a free-kick illustrated his threat from set pieces.
With so much riding on the derby, expect it to be a tense, cagey affair.
Free-kicks and corners could prove key – and Sunderland have a huge threat in the shape of 25-year-old Khazri.
Sunderland’s spine is stronger:
Allardyce strengthened the core of his team with the arrival of centre-back Lamine Kone from Lorient for £5million and Jan Kirchhoff, a snip at £750,000 from Bayern Munich.
Kone has starred alongside John O’Shea and Younes Kaboul, while Kirchhoff has been a revelation in the holding midfield role.
With Yann M’Vila, Khazri and Jermain Defoe too, Sunderland’s spine is arguably stronger than Steven Taylor/Fabricio Coloccini, Jonjo Shelvey/Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic.
It could prove vital in a tense and high-pressured Tyne-Wear derby.
If Sunderland can keep Wijnaldum and Daryl Janmaat quiet, they will be halfway there:
With nine league goals to his name, Dutch ace Wijnaldum has been one of the few success stories for Newcastle.
In the home comforts of St James’s Park, the 25-year-old top scorer has proved to be deadly at times. On the road has been a different story though, with Wijnaldum failing to find the net.
Kirchhoff is likely to be tasked with keeping him quiet and after starring at West Ham and Southampton, he is more than capable.
Marauding Janmaat, the North East Football Writers’ Player of the Year, hasn’t reached the heights of last season but he remains a potent threat down the right.
The Dutch full-back loves to get forward so Patrick van Aanholt must improve on recent performances as Newcastle will be targeting him.
Get at the fragile Newcastle United defence:
Sunderland and Newcastle have two of the worst defences in the top flight, with Allardyce’s side shipping 54 goals and Newcastle 53.
Only Aston Villa have conceded more, with 55, while rivals Norwich City have let 54 goals in this campaign.
Despite failing to keep a clean sheet in 15 Premier League matches, Allardyce has strengthened with Kone and Kirchhoff adding greater physicality and composure.
Newcastle showed their defensive fragility in the 3-1 defeat to Eddie Howe’s AFC Bournemouth, with Steven Taylor at fault for two of the goals.
If Fabio Borini and Khazri can get at Newcastle’s backline – who will be missing Paul Dummett – then Jermain Defoe could clean up.
Frustrate the St James’s Park faithful by dominating possession:
St James’s Park can work one of two ways; it can be an intimidating atmosphere but it can also turn nasty, quickly, if Newcastle again find themselves behind.
Steve McClaren found that out to his cost.
A new manager will give Newcastle a major lift and with 10 games of the Premier League campaign left, they need Rafa Benitez – set to be appointed boss – to have an immediate impact.
But if Sunderland can dominate possession, like Bournemouth, then that will frustrate the home crowd.
Kirchhoff, M’Vila and Jack Rodwell will be key in maintaining possession.
Sunderland’s subs bench could prove the difference:
Allardyce’s options have been boosted with the return of Younes Kaboul and Seb Larsson from injury.
Add to that mix Jeremain Lens, returning from his hernia operation, and. all of a sudden. Sunderland have some strength in depth.
Allardyce has talked about the added competitive edge to his side, with those experienced hands on the bench desperate to make an impression.
Defoe will surely be in the starting line-up, but Big Sam has more options now.
And with Newcastle still suffering from defensive issues and misfiring strikers, that could prove the difference.