The North East
These days, whatever it might be, the next one is always ‘the biggest ever’. But in the case of the Tyne-Wear derby, it’s probably true.
It’s been, ooh, nearly a whole year since the last make-or-break derby between Newcastle and Sunderland, and though the Geordies ended up in a more perilous state, it was only the Mackems who went into last April’s home derby under severe pressure.
This time, both are in the sh*t. One, if not both, will be relegated.
The Chronicle aren’t underestimating the importance of Sunday to either side. They rank the St James’ Park meeting as the most important of 156 derbies and it is hard to argue. The 18th-placed hosts trail their visitors by a single point and they would be left with a huge task to overhaul a four-point deficit if Sunderland were to record their seventh consecutive derby win.
This time, it is Newcastle hoping the new manager bounce can inspire them to derby victory. The last four Sunderland bosses all had derbies in their first couple of weeks in the job and all won.
Benitez has been at Newcastle for a week now and there were some encouraging signs during Monday’s 1-0 defeat at leaders Leicester. Most promisingly, the back four looked as solid as it has for a long time, despite three of the individuals being stand-ins.
The new boss has eight games to save Newcastle, and his long-term prospects at St James’ Park. After the derby, Benitez has the international break to work on his side, but more immediate progress is required, for reasons outlined above.
Desperate for someone to believe in, the Geordies already seem to have taken him to their hearts. But a victory on Sunday would almost earn him deity status at the cathedral on the hill.
As well as being crucial to his club’s survival hopes, for Benitez this one will be personal too. There are few managerial rivals that the former Liverpool and Chelsea boss would like to stick it to more than Sam Allardyce. The feeling is entirely mutual, mind, and Big Sam will be rubbing his hands at the prospect of returning to his former club and hammering another nail in their coffin.
Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis
City’s progress to the Champions League last eight for the first time in their history came at a cost on Tuesday night. Vincent Kompany broke down again before centre-back partner Nicolas Otamendi had to be replaced, also in the first-half.
Their places were taken by Mangala and Demichelis, who could continue to deputise this weekend.
“United players will be licking their lips at the two centre backs that came on.”
Indeed, Rio. Mangala and Demichelis have started only one game together so far this term: the 4-1 home thrashing received from Liverpool. Demichelis looked as fast in thought and movement as you’d expect from a 35-year-old, while Mangala just looked drunk.
Demichelis has served City well but there is little doubt his time is up. Mangala, who could end up costing City £42million, has barely played since. Prior to coming on in midweek, his previous appearance was the Capital One Cup first leg defeat at Everton on January 6. Last week at Norwich, he failed to even make the bench.
Even United, with their goalscoring woes, will fancy their chances against those two. Otamendi hasn’t been written off yet, and Manuel Pellegrini will surely do everything to nurse him through with a dead leg.
N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater
The pair who make up the Leicester engine room have to put aside plans to join up with their international squads for the first time and concentrate on the task at hand when the Foxes go to Crystal Palace.
Neither can afford to hold anything back when they go into their tackles this weekend for fear of picking up a knock that could hamper their prospects of joining up with their international squads. The thought probably won’t cross their minds, but even the slightest dip in intensity will cost Leicester as they bid to open up an eight-point gap before Tottenham play on Sunday.
Mauricio Pochettino said last week that the Tottenham fans are “right to dream” and their next few games will likely dictate whether that dream can become a reality in May.
The Villa game last week came at the right time for Spurs, who had taken one point from six available in London derbies before that. After the Bournemouth clash on Sunday come challenges against Liverpool and Manchester United. Three points is an absolute must if they are to keep chipping away at Leicester and fend off Arsenal.
Spurs battered Bournemouth 5-1 at Dean Court but the Cherries can go to White Hart Lane free of pressure, having reached 38 points last weekend with a win over Swansea. They have lost only two of their last nine games on the road and they are the only team to have outworked Spurs this season, having run on average 117km per game, one kilometre more than Pochettino’s men.
The relegation fight is almost certainly a scrap between the bottom four, but even with an eight-point cushion, the 16th-placed Swans need a few more points just to be absolutely sure.
They have pretty much a free hit on Saturday when rock-bottom Aston Villa stumble into town. Head coach Francesco Guidolin has risen from his sick bed in time to take charge of what he calls “maybe the most important game of the season”.
With a draw in the Tyne-Wear derby hardly unthinkable, you would expect three points to be enough to secure Swansea’s Premier League status for next term. The sooner they can write off this campaign and look ahead to next season, the better for everyone at the Liberty.
Romelu Lukaku kept the Toffees’ season alive last season by sealing a place in the FA Cup semi-finals, but Roberto Martinez still desperately needs a strong conclusion to the Premier League season.
The Everton manager bemoaned the game’s blame culture this week but much of the criticism aimed at him this season has been entirely justified. After an 11th-placed finish last term, the Merseysiders currently sit 12th, sandwiched by West Brom and Bournemouth in the table.
Regardless of their FA Cup exploits, that simply isn’t good enough. Nor is their recent home record. At Goodison, Everton have lost five of their last eight games, winning only one.
This weekend, they come up against Arsenal, who may be having a difficult time themselves, but their record against the Toffees is strong. Arsene Wenger’s side have lost only one of their last 18 meetings with Everton – a record that stretches back nine years. Speaking of which…
The demands for Wenger to step aside have grown to possibly the loudest they have ever been after a week during which his side were knocked out of the FA Cup and Champions League. The only thing the manager can do to win back the doubters is to win the Premier League title.
After a run of nine league games with only two victories, that seems as unlikely as it has all season. Unlikely, but not impossible.
OK, the Gunners will have to summon a mental strength they have shown no signs of possessing; reverse an appalling run of form; and rediscover their touch in front of goal. But, as they sit eight points off the top with a game in hand over Leicester, hope has not yet evaporated for the less shouty Arsenal fans.
Defeat at Goodison, though, will surely have even the most optimistic Gooner – and Wenger – accepting that their season is done.
West Ham have won only two of their last 19 games against Chelsea, but the landscape is very different now. The Blues’ season is effectively over, while West Ham are pushing for the Champions League. For the first time in a long time, Hammers fans travelling across London do so in anticipation of something greater than derby bragging rights.
Slaven Bilic have every right to fancy themselves at Stamford Bridge. They’ve won their last three Premier League matches and are displaying far more impressive form than their rivals for fourth spot. Chelsea are unbeaten in 13 games under Guus Hiddink but they have drawn more than half of that number and won only two at home.
Diego Costa has been one of the Blues’ most impressive performers under Hiddink, having scored eight goals and laid on four more, but the centre-forward is suspended. In contrast, the Hammers’ talisman Dimitri Payet is flying. Five goals and five assists in his last seven games and a France call-up as a bonus.
With the teams either side of them in the table facing each other in the Manchester derby this weekend, Saturday at Stamford Bridge represents a great opportunity for the Hammers to further strengthen their Champions League prospects.