Having possibly misjudged the ability of his squad to juggle both the Premier League and Europa League commitments in the summer, how would you assess Alan Pardew's season so far?
Leazes Terrace: Firstly, I'd say the problem of squad size stemmed directly from the board's heel-dragging in the summer. Pardew naively tried to put a brave face on it, but by the time we were beaten by Brighton he'd had enough, bluntly saying "We didn't have enough good players on the pitch." On that subject alone, his defence of the board got many people annoyed when it was plain to see a big problem was lying in wait.
Generally, this season I think he's had a very difficult time of it - a 50/50 split being of unfortunate circumstance / his own doing. For every injury to Ben Arfa there's been a perplexing reluctance to play Marveaux. Cup defeats to Man Utd and Brighton were done by fielding weakened teams, firstly by managerial choice, next by circumstance. And it seemed the worse results got the more desperate and wild in his decisions he became - playing Cisse right wing to accommodate Ameobi after the departure of Ba just plain insanity.
It has to be remembered where Newcastle were when he took over and in particular the job he's performed since - particularly last season. However, owning the squad he has now (post-January) has highlighted his limitations strategically, often looking unsure of a player's best position and making rash or complex changes mid game. I'm not convinced he'll learn to simplify things to get the best out of a squad that's only likely to improve further in the summer (providing we stay up) - which underwhelms when considering the length of his contract. But, removing him would be very unfair and easily could have an adverse effect on the team, so for the time being I'm just hoping he gets a little more help in his backroom staff to patch the areas in which he's lacking.
Cisse nearly took the roof off St. James at the weekend with yet another late, late winner - just how important have his goals been recently?
LT: Ridiculously important - the Fulham strike could well be the difference between relegation and survival. The frustrating thing with Cisse is he's getting in scoring positions 2-3 times a game but having a rush of blood to the head and spurning the opportunities. Benfica away was another example of his erratic nature - he scores a priceless away goal but spurns another two chances (albeit with a more fortunate spin of the ball he scores a hat-trick), whereas Lima, Cardoza and Moreno didn't fault when presented with their opportunities.
Talk to me about Sissoko - what a gem of a player you have there.
LT: He's like a train when he gets running - has some awesome power behind him! He's played behind the striker since his arrival (in a rough 433) and supported the forwards and wingers well. All the incomers have done well in fairness, in their own way. However, Debuchy has been my pick of the lot - tireless work-rate, brilliant anticipation and great reading of the game. His signing made even more of a mockery of the squabble over his price tag in the summer.
Newcastle have the small matter of a Europa League Quarter Final, second leg, before Sunday's derby, despite trailing from the first leg, Pardew will still fancy his sides chances and surely field a full strength eleven. Any concerns this may lead to tired legs come Sunday lunchtime, or do Newcastle's priorities lie elsewhere than the Tyne/Wear derby this term?
LT: I think no manager dares look at the derby as being a lesser priority, not since Ruud Gullit's kamikaze decisions over a decade ago. Pride aside, both games are as important as each other - even with the gifted 2 goal lead Benfica bring they are distinctly beatable and with them out of the way a European final would be in touching distance. Adversely a loss on Sunday could drag us straight back into a mess that a win would keep us out of. To be honest, it boils down to who returns from injury this week. Debuchy and Gouffran are ineligible for Europe so can return for Sunday if fit, as can Hatem Ben Arfa (aye, I'm sorry) as he appears to have been healed by Jesus himself given his 'out for the season' prognosis... Home comforts for both games should help no end, but I'm expecting tired legs from the likes of Sissoko and Cabaye who have played constantly of late.
How's Coloccini's back doing? Having put in a colossal performance in the reverse fixture I for one will be delighted not to see him line up on Sunday.
LT: He's another on the verge of returning despite the apparent severity of his injury; amazing what a holiday to Argentina can do for your health... It might sound convenient, but the similarities in style and performance of Yanga-Mbiwa have meant Colo has barely been noted by his absence. Anyway - Newcastle can never have more than one competent defender at the club at a time, so I think some balance had to be restored...
With Paolo Di Canio recently installed as Sunderland manager the touchline at St. James' will surely make for interesting viewing?
LT: Aye, I'd expect Di Canio carry on his heavy gesticulation on the touchline as standard. I think the Newcastle bench will better advised to keep matters on their own business, save for the same kind of daftness that occurred during last season's derby at St James - I want all the viewing to be on the pitch!
Are there any aspects of this Sunderland side that cause you particular concern ahead of the game?
LT: Naturally with a new manager I expect a boost in determination - more so with Di Canio around, which looked the case for the fixture at Chelsea. Many of my side are nervy about the potential 'had to be factor' of Graham or Johnson scoring, although I'm not one for superstitions. Strategically, my concerns are more about Newcastle not / not being able to match the work rate of Sunderland in spells, which in other games has seen us lose very easily defended goals. I'm also uneasy about Wickham's potential involvement as he looks to have a huge point to prove and the willing to prove it.
Vice-versa, how will Newcastle look to claim all three points?
LT: Newcastle rely a lot on pressing at the minute. Krul's distribution isn't good enough to start counter attacks and the team move too slowly to do it also. Cabaye will be pivotal, as will Cisse's alertness and confidence. The huge if at the time of writing is whether Ben Arfa and Debuchy will play (and be fit enough to have an influential performance) - if they both, and do well Newcastle could have a whole new dimension we haven't had this season.
LT: Quietly confident. I never like to be vocal in the run-up to a game, but it's always reassuring to have home advantage.
LT: Di Canio has at least looked to rally the team, so I'm not expecting a push-over. A close 2-1 win (and you need not ask who for...)