December 19, 2014

Twenty kilometres have always separated North East rivals Newcastle United and Sunderland.

Only one point currently separates them entering the 156th version of the Tyne-Wear derby, and with a potential six-point belter in the bid to avoid relegation, so much more could be separating them at season's end if one of them emerges victorious Sunday at St James' Park.

This match does not lack for subplots, but the primary one is this being billed as the first "£100 million match" of the Premier League season since that is also at stake in terms of television money that kicks in next season for top-flight teams. For more perspective, teams in the Championship receive only approximately £2 million from television rights, though relegated teams receive "parachute payments" that help ease the sting of being sent down.

"It's a massive game and the lads will be ready for it," striker Jermaine Dafoe told Sunderland's official website. "I think it's the biggest derby because it's not only about bragging rights - it's about staying in the Premier League."

Norwich City's 1-0 victory at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday raised the stakes higher as it pushed Sunderland (6-7-16) into the drop. The Black Cats have two matches in hand on the Canaries and Newcastle (6-6-17) are one point behind Sunderland in 19th place on 24 points and also have nine matches remaining.

This rivalry has been one-sided of late, with Sunderland's six wins on the trot the longest in the rivalry that began in 1883, a run that also has given each team 53 wins all-time with 49 draws. The Black Cats have scored 13 goals in those six victories, converting a staggering 50 percent of their chances on target, while the Magpies have just one goal in 39 shots on goal and have outshot Sunderland 105-73 in those defeats.

There is some symmetry to this match as it's Newcastle's turn to enter the derby with a manager in just his second game on the touchline. And if history is any guide, form dictates Rafa Benitez will leave this match a winner since the last four managers have won this derby in their second match in charge.

Benitez, charged with the daunting task of guiding the Magpies to safety after replacing Steve McClaren, was able to organise Newcastle's defence well in the short time after taking over Friday, but it still wasn't enough to prevent league leaders Leicester City from emerging with a 1-0 victory Monday.

"He's done a bit more tactical shape in training which the boys have taken on excellently," defender Jamaal Lascalles told nufc.tv. "I think the game on Sunday against Sunderland - we have to win that. We literally have to win."

Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce watched his team run out 3-0 winners in the reverse fixture at the Stadium of Light shortly after taking over following Dick Advocaat's resignation, and Benitez's arrival in the North East likely will reignite the long-standing feud between the two managers.

In his autobiography "Big Sam" released last fall before taking the Sunderland job, Allardyce recounted Benitez grousing about his team's playing style while "Big Sam" was in charge at Bolton Wanderers. That came while the Spaniard was re-establishing Liverpool among Europe's top teams by winning the 2005 Champions League in his first season at Anfield.

"When we beat Benitez, he would complain, 'They don't play my type of football,'" Allardyce wrote. "What was that then? Winning football? He didn't like me and he thought he was superior.

"Here was a trendy manager with all his smart ideas getting beat by some oik from the Midlands. Benitez wouldn't talk to me at all and that just made it all the better when we won. I can't stand people who disrespect me the way he did."

The Spaniard infuriated Allardyce in 2009 by making a hand gesture to signal the match was over after Liverpool had taken a 2-0 lead against Blackburn Rovers in an eventual 4-0 rout. After another win the following year, Benitez sarcastically cracked Rovers' physical style under Allardyce was a "model for all managers around the world, their style of play, his behaviour. The style of football, I think, Barcelona are thinking of copying."

Benitez also hit out at Allardyce to a Spanish radio station last fall when asked about the passages in "Big Sam" critical of him.

"Do you know how many trophies he has won? His opinion does not have a lot of value," Benitez said prior to his sacking by Real Madrid in January.

The two have not shared the same touchline since 2013, when Benitez was at Chelsea and Allardyce at West Ham, and the Spaniard is 7-3-2 head-to-head after a 2-0 victory for Chelsea in May 2013.

Sunderland have claimed points in each of their last two matches with draws against Crystal Palace and Southampton. The Black Cats, though, were denied two vital points in their survival bid March 5, settling for one point at St Mary's Stadium when they conceded to Virgin Van Dijk moments before the final whistle in a 1-1 draw.

"I was more frustrated at Southampton than I was at Palace because we conceded on late rather than scoring, but a point is better than nothing and that's what we need to look at," Sunderland striker Fabio Borini said. "... This derby won't be decisive because there are eight games after, but it can give us a push and be a big help to us."

The October match between the teams turned when Newcastle defender Fabricio Coloccini was given a red card for a foul on Adam Johnson - since cut from the team following his conviction for sexual offences with a minor - late in the first half. Johnson converted from the spot just before the interval, and both Billy Jones and Steven Fletcher added second-half goals for Sunderland.

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