Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez and Sunderland counterpart Sam Allardyce played down their personal differences as they prepare to lead their sides in the most important Tyne-Wear derby for over a quarter of a century.
The Black Cats travel to St James’ Park on Sunday aiming to record an unprecedented seventh consecutive victory in a rivalry spanning more than 117 years, and one which takes on added significance as the North-East neighbours fight for Premier League survival.
The clubs are separated by just a point on either side of the relegation zone, with Benitez taking charge of the second-from-bottom Magpies for the first time at home since he replaced Steve McClaren earlier this month.
A sell-out 52,000 crowd will provide a passion-filled backdrop, with the strained relationship between the managers adding further spice to a fixture in which Sunderland boast an eight-game unbeaten record stretching back four and a half years.
Allardyce, then at Blackburn Rovers, took exception to an ‘it’s all over’ gesture from Benitez when his Liverpool side took a 2-0 lead in a Premier League game in 2009, while the Spaniard issued an angry response to claims from Allardyce that the 55-year-old had little to do with the Reds’ Steven Gerrard-inspired Champions League final win 11 years ago.
Allardyce, who was sacked by Newcastle in 2008 after just eight months in charge, insists that is all now water under the bridge.
The 61-year-old claims it was his attempt at mind-games to unsettle his rival, who he has beaten three times in their 12 previous meetings.
Benitez has emerged victorious in seven of those, and Allardyce said: “There was the time when we had our conflict and we had our differences.
– Addicted –
“We both went to the papers and aired our differences. I always thought joining in the mind games was a good thing.
“Why does everyone seem to think only the top managers at the top clubs could play mind games? I played them like everyone else and found it very entertaining.
“I have to say I was surprised with Rafa’s appointment at Newcastle on the basis of the clubs he has managed, but he’s obviously addicted to management like I am.
“You could not get any better than him in the market to bring in now. It’s a big capture for them because of what he’s done and achieved in the game.”
Former Real Madrid and Chelsea boss Benitez was also keen to downplay the personal aspect of his home debut in the dugout, as he bids to build on a positive display in his first match in charge, a 1-0 defeat at league leaders Leicester City.
“(My relationship with Allardyce) is fine, he is professional and I am professional,” Benitez said.
“We know this is a massive game for the city and for the fans and it gives us a chance to end the run of defeats we’ve had in this fixture.”
Defeat for either side will leave them facing a difficult task to avoid relegation, raising the stakes to levels not seen since the clubs met in a second tier play-off semi-final in 1990 won by Sunderland.
“For me, it’s probably the biggest Tyne-Wear derby ever because of what is at stake,” Allardyce added.
“This is absolutely the worst season to get relegated from the Premier League because of the financial implications of missing out on the money from the league’s new TV deal.”
Sunderland’s 14-goal top scorer Jermain Defoe is expected to return to the starting line-up in place of Dame N’Doye, while Allardyce must also decide whether John O’Shea or Younes Kaboul partners Lamine Kone at the heart of the defence, as the visitors go in search of a first clean sheet for four months.
There could also be changes in midfield, with England international Jack Rodwell’s place under threat as Lee Cattermole and Seb Larsson push for inclusion.
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