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Luton Town v Newcastle United - Premier League

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Opposition Preview: Football writer Mark Douglas lifts the lid on Eddie Howe’s Newcastle side!

Ahead of the first Tyne-Wear Derby since 2016, we spoke to Northern Football Correspondent for iPaperSport, Mark Douglas, to find out what Sunderland can expect from Eddie Howe’s Newcastle side.

Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Including cup games, Newcastle have won just one of their last eight games, what would you say are the key reasons behind that dip in form?

The obvious answer is probably fatigue from a punishing November and December schedule that saw them face key games in the Champions League and Carabao Cup pretty much back-to-back dovetailing with a horrendous run of injuries.

At one point they had 11 first-teamers out and those that have returned – Dan Burn and Sven Botman are back now – look out of form and rhythm too. They coped with it admirably until early December but form has dropped off a cliff since a loss at Everton.

But there are some deeper issues. The defensive solidity that was their bedrock last season has deserted them and the midfield mix isn’t quite right. They concede a lot of chances and haven’t been able to find solutions to that yet.

Eddie Howe’s side have been brilliant at home, but have won just one of their 10 away league matches - why do you think there is such a contrast in results on the road?

Again, issues around availability have hit them hard. The club invested in Sandro Tonali and Harvey Barnes in the summer to try and increase their control of games – especially away from home – and allow them to change games when needed but neither have played more than a handful of matches. Inevitably, that has made playing away from home – where teams have turned the table and been able to bypass their press fairly easily – harder.

They miss a protective presence in midfield and the decision not to buy a number six in the summer has come back to haunt them. Someone to sit in front of the back four would have been invaluable in recent games.

Sunderland v Newcastle United - Premier League
When the two sides last met at the Stadium of Light, Steven Fletcher scored the third in a 3-0 victory.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Taking that poor form and awful away record into account, do you think Sunderland away from home was the worst possible draw in terms of adding fuel to the fire with pressure?

When the draw was made they were still in the Champions League and Carabao Cup and performing well in the league but results since – and the exit from two competitions in a week – have made this game absolutely huge for Newcastle.

It was always a big game but now it’s an important one too, for the season and for Howe himself, who is facing the first serious questions of his tenure.

Losing derby games can have a profound impact – just ask Alan Pardew.

Newcastle, of course, will be favourites and a victory would help ease the pressure on Eddie Howe, but should he lose the match, do you think serious questions will start to be asked about his future?

Not internally, no, but it certainly won’t help him. The club’s owners retain faith in him and have been described to me this week as “calm” about recent form. They know why form has slumped and are sympathetic - I believe he built up enough credit to survive a derby day defeat.

But at the same time, it will ramp up the pressure among the support and bring further uncomfortable questions to his door.

For many, defeat to a Championship Sunderland will be simply unacceptable.

Sunderland v Newcastle United - Premier League
The time before that, Jermain Defoe’s unbelievable volley clinched Sunderland a 1-0 victory.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Moving onto the players, although Callum Wilson is out injured, Alexander Isak has been in excellent scoring form this season - what makes him so deadly?

He’s a class act. Quick, technically excellent, a good finisher, superb in the air and able to operate in tight spaces – he’s a perfect modern-day forward.

If Sunderland allow him the space to run into, he will do damage and after a few injury problems, he’s started to look like his old self again.

I think a key area that concerns me is both the physicality and energy within Newcastle’s midfield, particularly with Bruno and Joelinton, do you think that’s something that Sunderland will have to step up against?

Both Guimaraes and Joelinton are excellent players and when the latter plays well, so do Newcastle.

But midfield has been an area of concern for Newcastle. Many of their issues come because they’re too loose in that area and if Sunderland can establish a foothold there, they can win the game.

Sunderland v Newcastle United - Premier League
Back in 2013, it was Fabio Borini’s late winner that made it two derby victories in a row.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

17-year-old breakthrough star Lewis Miley started Newcastle’s last match at Anfield and has started many Champions League games, do you think he’ll continue to start in the derby?

Miley started at Anfield on Monday but his fine form has dipped slightly in recent weeks.

It could be the time to take him out of the team although he illustrated at Paris Saint Germain he can rise to the occasion in big games.

In defence, Captain Kieran Trippier could miss the match through injury, how big of a blow would that be both offensively and defensively?

It’s a blow because he’s a class act and their best right-back. He brings experience and is a threat going forward, especially with his set pieces.

That being said, his form has dropped alarmingly in recent weeks – so much so that he admitted himself to a drop in his high standards. Tino Livramento has been a more than capable understudy and can do damage offensively himself.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Newcastle United v Sunderland - St James’ Park
The first of six in a row, David Vaughan scored the third in a 3-0 thrashing at St James’ Park.
Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

How do you think Newcastle will approach the match tactically at the Stadium of Light?

They know only one way: to go for it. Their high pressing ‘intensity is our identity’ style delivered fourth place and a League Cup final last season and when it works, it’s difficult to live with.

The hope at Newcastle will be that time on the training ground and a week to prepare will bring a revival of fortunes and a return to that style.

Which players are missing for the match and which eleven players do you think Howe will select?

None of the long-term injury absentees will be back by Saturday, so that means the likes of Harvey Barnes, Elliot Anderson, Jacob Muprhy and the important Joe Willock will all be missing. Callum Wilson is out while Trippier is unlikely to return.

The team won’t be a million miles away from the one that played on Monday at Liverpool, with maybe Miguel Almiron coming into the reckoning (he was on the bench for the last game).

XI that started against Liverpool: Dubravka (GK), Livramento, Botman, Schar, Burn, Miley. Longstaff, Guimaraes, Gordon, Isak, Joelinton.

Sunderland are unbeaten against Newcastle in nine matches, spanning back to 2011 - what is your prediction for the final score?

If Sunderland go ahead, it’ll be a very interesting game and the Stadium of Light atmosphere will provide this young side with energy they can feed off.

They will have their moments, but given the gulf in class at the moment you’d expect Newcastle to edge it.


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