The stripes are a different colour and they’re just 10.49 miles apart as the crow flies, but as far as Manchester City are concerned Newcastle and Sunderland are polar opposites.
Trips to Tyneside are usually an illuminating experience for the Sky Blues. They haven’t lost at St James’ Park – The Citadel of the North East – since Michael Owen, latterly the ‘charismatic voice’ of BT Sport, scored the winner in a 1-0 Toon victory back in 2005.
Contrast that with the darkness that descends when City pop down the road to the Stadium of Light, with four frustrating, and totally undeserved 1-0 defeats on the bounce – perverse doesn’t even come close.
Manuel Pellegrini’s team need to take maximum points to sustain their impressive title charge, having won eight of their last nine. It must be hoped that Pellegrini’s December Manager of the Month accolade, isn’t the proverbial kiss of death.
Alan Pardew earned similar recognition for Newcastle’s exploits in November, but has since seen his side lose their last three, including an unexpected FA Cup reversal to Cardiff at a half-empty St James’ last Saturday.
Pellegrini’s managerial career in England was off to a flyer in August, when City downed the Magpies 4-0 in the opening Premier League match. That win was City’s eighth consecutive victory over United in the top flight.
In total, City are unbeaten in their last 14 PL games against Newcastle, not forgetting a 2-0 Capital One Cup win in extra time last October.
It’s a phenomenal run of success and the law of averages says it can’t go on forever, but the form book strongly suggests it’s not about to end on Sunday.
City’s astute Chilean leader won’t let recent history cloud his thinking on what will undoubtedly be a challenging encounter, with the home side roared on by some of the finest supporters in the land.
If clubs were judged by the calibre of their fans and not their players, Newcastle would be among the elite. So too would West Ham United, but look what happened to them in midweek.
After scoring their latest half-a-dozen goals – against the Hammers – City have now netted an incredible 92 goals in just 31 games across four competitions.
It doesn’t therefore help Newcastle’s cause that skipper Fabricio Coloccini will be out with a knee injury, while French international right back Mathieu Debuchy is suspended.
City are still denied the services of Sergio Aguero, Stevan Jovetic and Jack Rodwell through injury, but are able to welcome back Jesus Navas and Micah Richards from the medical room, while Yaya Toure has shaken off the effects of an ankle problem.
Just eight goals shy of a century and nearly half the season still to go, City’s goal haul is all the more remarkable given the absence of Aguero. The sublime Argentine was scoring at the rate of a goal-per-game before he hobbled off with a damaged calf, with City leading Arsenal 2-1 on December 14th.
Ridiculously, he’s hardly been missed with 24 goals bagged in seven-and-a-bit matches. He’s poised to return, ahead of his original recovery schedule, against Cardiff next weekend.
Talk about making a good thing even better!
Joe Hart, Matija Nastasic and Fernandinho should return as Pellegrini fields his strongest available First XI.
City’s away form has been cited as the team’s weakness in their title aspirations. True, there are presently seven teams – Newcastle included – who have amassed more points on the road than City, but Pellegrini appears to have cured any travel sickness.
A rejuvenated Joe Hart, an in-form Aleksander Kolarov, a returning central pairing of Captain Fantastic Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic, plus an outstanding Pablo Zabaleta, means City’s defence now rates fourth, with 23 goals conceded.
With a sense of continuity finally established at the back, Pellegrini now knows his preferred selection in the big games and Newcastle away is a big game!
The Toon are 13 points better off after 20 games than this time last year and, with 33 points in the bag, are on course to equal the achievements of 2011/12 when they finished 5th.
Keeper Tim Krul and playmaker Yohan Cabaye are expected to be available for what should be anything but a 0-0 draw. The North East-North West match up has a history of high-scoring, with 38 goals in the last 11 clashes.
It could be a significant weekend in the race for the PL title with the top four all away from home. Chelsea travel to a surprisingly resolute Hull City, while Liverpool face an improving Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium – both tricky ties.
Sadly the same cannot be said for Arsenal’s trip to Aston Villa on the Monday night, but hopefully it’ll be a game the Gunners need to win to regain top spot off City.
Pellegrini had said that if City were within three points of the leaders by the end of 2013, his team would be on course to win the title.
City shaved five points off the advantage held by Arsene Wenger’s pacesetters last month, and now the harsh realities and rigours of a tough PL campaign are starting to kick in.
City have shown how resolute they can be having lost key men such as Kompany, Nastasic, Silva and Aguero for prolonged periods. The squad, by no means perfect and with room for improvement, has held up well.
But can City’s rivals cope with similar losses – Theo Walcott at Arsenal being a prime example?
The prospect of a unique, albeit unlikely, quadruple (more than happy to be proven wrong) could well see City make a marquee signing this month to strengthen the defence.
City surely won’t want to gamble on leaving the side exposed, in what could turn out to be the most successful season in the club’s history?
The risk of losing the hugely influential Kompany for any length of time would be ruinous. Centre back is the most obvious position where injuries, even suspensions, could leave City exposed.
Joleon Lescott’s departure either this month, but preferably in the summer, looks inevitable. However, his desire to try and stake a claim for England’s World Cup squad may hasten a move.
Speculation linking City with what would be a big money move for either Porto’s young French CB, Eliaquim Mangala or Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, appear to have ‘legs’ but, at this point it is pure speculation.
Purchases in the transfer market are always a source of anticipation and excitement among fans, but the only ‘shopping’ on Manuel Pellegrini’s list this weekend will be three PL points after successfully scanning the ‘Barcodes’.
By David Walker