With the big game just days away we called a brief truce with the lads over at the fantastic blog NUFC-specific The Leazes Terrace to get their answers to our probing questions. You can also follow the LT lads on twitter for all the NUFC banter you need and more. For Mags they're alright, honest.
So without further to do, on to the questions...
You must be pretty chuffed overall with how the season has gone so far? No Geordie in even their wildest dreams would have predicted you would be sat in such a strong position at this stage of the season surely?
LT: Certainly, looking back to the pre-season preview I personally expected a final finish of somewhere between 11th and 14th - of course this can still happen but it tells the story that a mid table scrap was expected. I always believed we'd be comfortably ahead of the drop-zone, but after a near shambolic pre-season of last minute departures, injuries and the Joey Barton circus, it looked like it would take a while to get our season underway. There have been few times where we have looked far from convincing in terms of position, but really I'm just enjoying the ride as it goes.
Pardew seems to be working minor miracles, especially in the transfer market, how would you assess his impact on Tyneside?
LT: Well, managing to win this baying mob over say's enough in itself! Overall, I've been happy with him - although I see him more as an important cog in a machine, along with likes of Chief Scout Graham Carr and his assistant John Carver. Pardew's important contribution has been his PR - he's managed to keep players happy, motivated and ambitious - something that will badly needed to retain the likes of Tiote, Colocinni etc.
Flaws? He has dropped a few tactical clangers as this season has went on and I would like to see him continue to learn from his mistakes rather than just admit them. But overall, he looks to be comfortable in the position for some time, and I'm just as comfortable with that.
As much as it pains me to say it given my red and white allegiances but Yohan Cabaye, what a player!
LT: Relentless work-rate, superb range of passing with a killer striker of the ball - an absolute bargain. I hadn't seen a great deal of him in his time in France but upon watching him vs Fiorentina in the pre-season you could tell straight away he was a real buy. The biggest shame with him is the limited time he's had to play with Tiote - I worked out last week that they had only started 10 games together this season but within those 10 NUFC had only lost once (away to Liverpool). Keeping the two fit and playing together for the run-in will be crucial in where we finish, then I'm sure the problem will be fending off tempting offers from Mike's door...
NUFC caught every by surprise with the signing of Papiss Cisse in January. From the little I have seen of him before his move to the Premier League he certainly looks like he has all the attributes, what have you made of him so far?
LT: Overall, very impressed. His attitude more than anything has been really encouraging - always looking for the ball and more than prepared to drop deeper to help win the ball back. He took it to the extreme in his debut against Aston Villa, almost trying too hard to score and fluffed his lines before eventually smashing in the winner. In the bigger perspective though, the deal was near perfect for us - the (widely reported) less than expected price-tag, the existing relationship with his strike partner Demba Ba, and his own personal eagerness to prove himself on the PL all show the potential for him to be a big success - two goals in just over two games worth of playing time, can't complain with that!
Also, when did Fabricio Coloccini decide to be a footballer and a commanding one at that?
LT: Whenever it was, it probably would have saved us a lot of hassle if he had done it in his first season here! The physicality and pace of England massively overawed him at first and his stay promised to be a short one, but staying here for the Championship campaign was huge in his adapting, particularly, to the pace of the game. I think also at first he was expected to compete physically and his real talent in anticipating and intercepting was completely overlooked - once this was sorted and he was consistently partnered with a ‘stopper' centre back he quickly came into his own. Making him captain pre-season has been an inspired move and taken him onto a level that could have never been expected when he first moved here. Whether he stays or not is another question - the talk is positive but just talk at the minute...
What have you made of Sunderland's turnaround under O'Neill, you must have been gutted when Bruce left?
LT: Ha! Aye, he was doing a sterling job! In all seriousness, I think he did well to last as long as he did. It was understandable that the Sunderland hierarchy didn't want to be seen to make any knee-jerk decisions, but his constant excuses were pathetic, detrimental to the team and demoralising to the fans. O'Neill's been everything expected and more - the improvement in organisation and work-rate was always guaranteed to get points on the board, and a little rub of the green here and there (like the win at home to Man City) has made for a dream start. Once things settle down though it will be interesting to see how he gets on - he had undoubted successes at Aston Villa, but started to make *some* very strange decisions when given money to spend. Regardless, he's taken to the job seamlessly and I can't see any reason why he shouldn't be able to improve SAFC, in some form at least, in the long term.
Looking ahead to Sunday where can you see Newcastle hurting Sunderland?
LT: We're such a Jekyl and Hyde side at the minute it's hard to definitively say. Ba on his day can be unstoppable so if he comes out firing I think he could be a game winner by himself. Of late, we've played a lot of football through the flanks, to varying success, and a lot could depend on who takes the right midfield slot. Ben Arfa ‘could' prove a nightmare for Richardson but it's more likely he'll come on as a sub with Ryan Taylor starting. Personally, I think we have to avoid your midfield ‘core' in attacking, and if we manage to get at your centre-backs we'll have some success.
And vice-versa, where can Sunderland get the better of the hosts?
LT: Simple stratgey could be the biggest problem - NUFC have struggled on a number of occasions to build a rhythm against a five man midfield, notably as recently as the Wolves game. If a contain and counter attack set-up is adopted I can see you causing us problems at times with the home side fully expected to push up and attack. McClean has been in destructive form and his intense work rate and incessant is a patent threat - as is the long-range capability of seemingly all of your midfield. Definitely think NUFC need to be on their toes in preventing long-shots - given we usually stand off.
Tiote vs Cattermole - should be interesting?
LT: To be honest, at present I worry more about Cabaye in feisty situations. He's generally an honest player, but can lose his temper far too easily if he feels he's been roughed up. The last couple of derbies Cattermole has been very close to being sent off, as had Cabaye - both managers would do well to drill the importance of discipline into them, Cattermole particularly given there'll be a very vocal recognition of even the slightest mistimed tackle. I'm hoping that, whether he believes he was unfairly targeted or not, Cabaye has learned his lesson from his recent suspension and keeps his head.
Any Derby Day superstitions?
LT: Not for me I'm afraid - never really been the type. Unless you count going out on the beers at the crack of dawn for every derby as a superstition?!
Prediction for the game?
LT: It's a tricky one as, again, NUFC are a Jekyll and Hyde side at the minute. I think home advantage counts greatly for this one and I would have felt less optimistic if it was the reverse fixture - on that basis I think we'll win but it'll be a tight game.
Looking further ahead for the run in to the end of the season where do you think both sides will finish?
LT: I'd like to think we take full advantage of the position we've managed to carve out and finish 6th, but I think we might just slip to 7th. Sunderland I can imagine having a solid end to the season but the mid table is tight so it could go to the wire much like last season - 8th is achievable but perhaps 9th / 10th purely because of the ground that's being needed to make up since Bruce was kicked out.