At the start of this season former Sunderland manager Steve Bruce declared his intention to finish above local rivals Newcastle at the end of the season and the two north east sides have had mixed fortunes in the Premier League so far this season.

Newcastle began the season with a goalless draw at St James Park and conceded just 4 goals in the next 6 matches. Manager Alan Pardew has aimed for consistency in defence and kept a consistent backline with Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul between the sticks and a back four of Simpson, Steven Taylor, Coloccini and Ryan Taylor.

Last month Newcastle found themselves in the Champions League places after an opening run of 7 wins out of 11 games and the goals of Demba Ba have been crucial to the Toon Army’s cause this season.

There are signs however, that the Magpies are beginning to lose some of their early season flight. Newcastle has not won now in 7 Premier League games, losing 4 of their last 6 games and the injury to Steven Taylor in particular is a huge blow and the English defender looks set to miss most of the season after building a promising centre back partnership with Fabricio Coloccini. Senegalese striker Demba Ba who has 13 of Newcastle’s 23 goals this season will be away with Senegal for the 2012 African Cup of Nations as will midfielder Cheik Tiote who will be on duty for the Ivory Coast. The immediate fixtures are not ideal either with Liverpool and Manchester United the next two opponents for the Geordies after the Boxing Day trip to the Reebok Stadium.

Over at the Stadium of Light Steve Bruce failed to carry out his goal this season, but there seems to be renewed optimism with manager Martin O’Neill now at the helm for the Black Cats.

When the former Aston Villa manager took charge, Sunderland were languishing in 16th position, some 15 points off rivals Newcastle. Fast forward just a few weeks and Sunderland under O’Neill have already picked up 2 wins out of 3 games and have immediately closed the gap down to 10 points.

With Asamoah Gyan on loan in the United Arab Emirates, Sunderland will not have the same concerns as Newcastle in regards to their players at this year’s African Cup of Nations. Losing Bent and Gyan in recent seasons has left Sunderland substantially short in attack and goals have been the major concern this season.

O’Neill immediately targeted his club’s striking options and got the Black Cats firing immediately with 5 goals scored in his 3 games in charge.

The Northern Irish manager is astute in the transfer market and will have been preparing a number of possible transfer targets, whilst he has been out of the game and January’s transfer window provides the ideal opportunity in which to address his concerns.

With the New Year approaching Sunderland fans will be full of optimism and hope in catching their local rivals come the end of the season.

Jonathan Day writes for Sportingly Better a football betting blog that provides free football tips, predictions and Premier League fantasy football picks.