Our Sunderland and Newcastle United writers have their say ahead of the Tyne-Wear derby
Newcastle United host Sunderland at St James's Park on Sunday lunchtime in the biggest Tyne-Wear derby in a generation.
Here, our Sunderland and Newcastle United writers have their say ahead of the lunchtime kick-off.
The law of averages has been the most comforting pre-match factor for Newcastle fans over the last three seasons.
"Surely they can't win AGAIN," has been the false hope running through Tyneside prior to Sunderland making it three, four, five and then six wins on the spin against the Magpies.
Can Sunderland now extend their run by yet another victory and reach a magnificent seven?
If so, then it will leave the streak intact for a while, with minimal prospect of a Premier League Tyne-Wear derby next season at the very least.
A fifth Premier League defeat on the spin for Newcastle would push them firmly towards the relegation trapdoor.
And even if Sunderland only come away with a solitary point, then it at least prevents Rafa Benitez generating any early momentum in the St James's hotseat.
But Benitez's arrival shouldn't be a barrier towards Sunderland emerging a victorious against a Newcastle side who are lying second bottom for more reasons than just Steve McClaren.
Newcastle were more solid defensively against Leicester on Monday night, yet they never forced Kasper Schmeichel into a save.
If Sunderland can remain solid in the early stages - particularly when the crowd will be buoyed by Benitez's home debut - then Sam Allardyce's side have every chance, considering the manner in which they have played since the arrival of the January signings.
The only fear is that Sunderland's own defensive shortcomings might come back to bite them yet again and leave another tale of frustration of what might have been.
Well, it is almost upon us, the biggest Tyne-Wear derby of a generation.
Defeat for either side wouldn't be catastrophic with eight games of the Premier League season remaining after Sunday.
But you feel victory for Sam Allardyce's Sunderland side would put a significant nail in the coffin of Newcastle United, hoping for a late revival under new boss Rafa Benitez.
Victory for the Black Cats would see them go four points clear of their fierce rivals - five if you include the goal difference.
And while that wouldn't be insurmountable, it would be significant.
Goal-shy Newcastle, the second lowest scorers in the top flight, have a defence as leaky as Sunderland's. Both have shipped 54 goals in 29 games this season.
But the January signings of Lamine Kone and Jan Kirchhoff have helped shore up Sunderland's defensive failings.
The introduction of the 4-1-4-1 system has suited Sunderland in recent matches and Jermain Defoe should be back to lead the line.
He could prove the key difference.
With 11 league goals to his name, you won't be surprised to see his conversion rate is 30 per cent - higher than Fabio Borini (13%), Aleksandar Mitrovic (11%) and Ayoze Perez (19%).
His shot accuracy of 70.3% is far higher too, with a goal coming every 166 minutes.
Sunderland's workrate, endeavour and kilometres covered have increased since Sam Allardyce took charge, with stats showing Sunderland run about 3km further per match than under
Dick Advocaat - as well as making an additional 38 sprints.
Newcastle looked more compact and disciplined in the narrow 1-0 defeat to title-chasing Leicester City on Monday, with experienced Benitez seemingly having an immediate impact.
They still didn't look like scoring, though.
I think initially it will be a tight, cagey and nervous affair with both sides afraid to open up and risk being caught on the counter-attack, certainly in the opening stages of the game.
But with two poor defensive records, I'm banking on there being goals.
Defoe to score for Sunderland but the game to end all square at St James's Park.
Is this a must-win game? Or must-not-lose?
Norwich City’s win over West Bromwich Albion yesterday suggests it’s the former.
Newcastle United simply have to win.
And three points wouldn’t even be enough to lift the club out of the Premier League’s relegation zone.
But it would be a start.
Newcastle have to start somewhere. They need some kind of movement, something to kick-start a troubled and troubling campaign which last week cost Steve McClaren his job.
United, of course, also have a game in hand.
History, and the law of averages, tells us that Sunderland’s winning run can go on.
A draw wouldn’t be disastrous, but a defeat would.
And only a win would really put Newcastle in any kind of position to push on over the coming weeks.
United took confidence from their performance against Leicester – there was a noticeable improvement after just three training sessions under Benitez – but goalscoring remains a worry.
Newcastle just don’t score enough goals.
At the back, they’re always liable to concede at least once.
Benitez talked of getting the right “help” for striker Aleksandar Mitrovic in his pre-match Press conference.
Mitrovic, all too often this season, has cut an isolated and frustrated figure up front.
But he can be decent with his back to goal, and the key, for me, will be getting the likes of Ayoze Perez and Georginio Wijnaldum close enough to him.
Benitez’s plan for the Leicester game almost worked.
United played as a team and worked for each other. They had a better shape, and were more organised.
And he’ll have a plan to stop Sunderland and exploit their weaknesses.
In Rafa Tyneside trusts.