Advocaat must find a winning formula at Sunderland

FIRST DERBY ... Dick Advocaat.

FIRST DERBY ... Dick Advocaat.

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PLEASE ignore any suggestion this week that we are building up to “the biggest” derby in history.

This Sunday’s encounter no more, nor no less, important than the one presided over by Paolo Di Canio two years ago when Sunderland were likewise a point above the bottom three and had two fewer games to secure their Premier League survival.

Are either as pivotal as the 1990 play-offs either?

But in setting the scene for derby week, bragging rights and the prospect of extending Sunderland’s record to five-in-a-row seem almost trivial given the club’s current troubles at the wrong end of the table.

Back in 2013, that famous knee-sliding day provided the back-bone for Sunderland to remain in the top flight and three points on Sunday would prove to be similarly meteoric for Dick Advocaat’s men.

Sunderland are at desperation point in their quest for three points. Should it come against the nearest and dearest, then it would simply make it all the sweeter ... again.

Yet it’s points that the Black Cats require with such dire need and this weekend has to be seen as an opportunity against a side almost as out-of-form as Sunderland.

The fortnight between Advocaat’s opening two games at the helm will ultimately allow the Dutchman to catch his breath, familiarise himself with his new surroundings and learn a little about the extent of the rivalry in this part of the world.

However, given his vast experience, Advocaat won’t necessarily need the cook, pot-washer and security guard at the Academy of Light to tell him how much this game means.

If he thinks back to his Rangers days, the memory of those titanic Old Firm battles should see him right.

What is much more important for Advocaat last week and this, is to get to grips with the personnel at his disposal and how best to get the most of them.

For all there were clear signs of improvement on his debut at West Ham, Sunderland still came away empty-handed.

Time is running out to get it right. Advocaat has to land upon a winning formula this weekend.

The international break will benefit Sunderland more than most in allowing the 67-year-old to hammer home his ideas, even if John O’Shea, Seb Larsson and Costel Pantilimon are absent with their countries.

But managers only learn so much in training.

It was a prudent move to organise a behind-closed-doors friendly against Motherwell last week.

It gave Advocaat the chance to watch the likes of Billy Jones, Liam Bridcutt and Danny Graham – players who he previously won’t have been particularly familiar with – in a game situation.

Perhaps more importantly, there was a crucial opportunity to build the match fitness of Lee Cattermole and Adam Johnson.

The pair of ex-Middlesbrough academy products haven’t played a lot of football over the last month or so during their contrasting respective suspensions.

But they are clearly key figures for Sunderland; two too rare elements of quality available to Advocaat.

Their inclusion is arguably the only genuine selection dilemmas facing Advocaat this weekend.

Despite preconceptions, Cattermole has proven he can handle the derby cauldron and will be licking his lips at this one.

Bringing the Teessider back at the expense of Jordi Gomez seems to be a relatively obvious call.

The potential inclusion of Newcastle nemesis Johnson is a tougher one for Advocaat, particularly given the chants that are likely to come his way from the away end.

Who would miss out to accommodate Johnson though?

Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham were two of Sunderland’s best performers at Upton Park, even if the latter was a novice in the hole behind the frontmen.

By rights, if anyone’s place should be in jeopardy, then it’s Jermain Defoe, although it would be a huge call from Advocaat to leave out the January signing for such a big encounter.

Can any player on each side really brag about any ‘form’ heading into this one though?

While Sunderland are bottom of the Premier League’s form table, Newcastle aren’t in a much better place at present, with injuries and a lack of investment ravaging John Carver’s options.

Providing Premier League status is assured, there is a feeling that both sets of fans would like the drudgery of this dire campaign to end now.

But another summer of rebuilding and undoing the latest round of mistakes in the transfer market is only a pipe dream at present for Sunderland.

Advocaat has to reap some rewards from his fortnight between relegation nail-biters.

If Newcastle emerge triumphant in this fixture for the first time since 2011, then it could be more than just bragging rights that Sunderland lose.

Their Premier League existence may equally slip away.