Newcastle United v Sunderland: Benitez believes derby win will change everything
Rafael Benitez believes that ending Newcastle United's miserable derby record against Sunderland may prove crucial in avoiding relegation from the Premier League.
The two teams meet at St James' Park on Sunday, with the visitors having won the last six Tyne-Wear derbies in the top flight - Sunderland's best run against their closest rivals.
Benitez, sacked by Real Madrid in January and now in his new position for a week, saw Newcastle lose 1-0 at leaders Leicester City on Monday. However, he has not lost his opening home league match as manager at any of his last six clubs, winning five and drawing one.
Newcastle are one point and two places worse off than Sunderland - who sit 17th – with both teams having nine matches left to save their respective top-flight statuses.
Benitez, though, knows this particular highly charged clash is potentially more significant than any of the other eight.
"I am sure if we win this game, you will see a really positive reaction from the team and they will believe," he said at his pre-match media conference.
"We know every game between now and the end of the season is important, but especially this one. A derby is massive for the city and the fans.
"We have to try and win. The fans are crucial for us. We have to stick together and be sure that every fan can help the players on the pitch.
"The players have commitment, they are working very hard and are trying to understand our ideas of what we want to do."
Sunderland playmaker Wahbi Khazri is set to play in his first Tyne-Wear derby and has had the importance of the fixture drilled into him by his team-mates as Sam Allardyce's men look to make it an astonishing seven-in-a-row streak against their fierce rivals.
"There has been a lot of talk about it and we know exactly how important it is to the club and to the people," Khazri said.
"Almost every team in the league has a derby to play so it is up to us to go out there and give a good performance on Sunday.
"Hopefully, for the fans, we can come away with the three points and more importantly start to pull away from the pack beneath us.
"I have been lucky enough to speak to some of my team-mates about past derbies and everything they have said is true - it is one of the biggest derbies in England.
"They have talked a lot about the importance of this and making sure Sunderland stay in the Premier League and I think on the back of our recent performances we certainly deserve to be here.
"But to continue to deserve that we need to pick up three points in the games that we play."
Newcastle's Chancel Mbemba is expected to be fit after returning for training, while Benitez is hopeful Papiss Cisse (groin) and Steven Taylor (knock) will also be available. Captain Fabricio Coloccini (calf) is yet to train and will be assessed ahead of the game.
New Sunderland signing Emmanuel Eboue (hamstring) and Duncan Watmore (ankle) are expected to be the only absentees for Allardyce, with Jermain Defoe (calf) in training and Jeremain Lens (hernia) hoping to return after six weeks out.
Key Opta stats:
- Jermain Defoe has scored seven goals in his last eight Premier League appearances away from home.
- Sunderland have shipped 38 goals away from home this season, the most of any team in the Premier League.
- Sunderland scored with all three shots on target in their win over Newcastle back in October at the Stadium of Light.
- Newcastle have managed to score just one goal in their last 627 minutes of football against Sunderland.
- Sunderland have beaten Newcastle United more times than they have any other opponent in the Premier League (9).
- The only opposition manager that Rafael Benitez has beaten more often in the Premier League than Sam Allardyce (7) is David Moyes (10).