NORTHERN EXPOSURE: It's North East derby weekend
This is a big week in these parts. In fact, by North East standards this season, they don't come much bigger. It is derby week, Middlesbrough v Newcastle United, a game which, inAugust and September, looked like it might even decide the outcome ofthe Championship title. Newcastle of course have managed to maintain their charge for topspot, overcoming the New Year blip to just about see off NottinghamForest and West Brom before we reach the end of March. Along came a spider: Newcastle's Jonas Gutierrez celebrates scoring his side's fourth goal against Barnsley Boro of course can upset their near neighbours' smooth andconvincing path back to the Premier League with a rare victory at theRiverside on Saturday. Although their home form has improved considerably under GordonStrachan, they remain surprisingly brittle on their travels, simplybecause they cannot seem to score, despite numerous striking optionsnow. The gamble on Scott McDonald's fitness has not quite worked outalthough in his five appearances, the Australia international has addedreal quality to a side more in the Strachan mould. More from Colin Young... NORTHERN EXPOSURE: Real Madrid, Bayern, Barcelona and... Newcastle!04/03/10 COLIN YOUNG: Adam Johnson story a shining example to youngsters23/02/10 NORTHERN EXPOSURE: Gibson warns of cost of Boro's failed Euro dream16/02/10 NORTHERN EXPOSURE: Genius like Kevin Phillips is hard to find - but Darren Bent deserves a place at the World Cup 09/02/10 NORTHERN EXPOSURE: The old Bhoys network at Middlesbrough could finally shatter the myth that Celtic could dominate English football 02/02/10 NORTHERN EXPOSURE: Adam Johnson's departure - even for £6m - would be a major blow to a Boro side struggling to keep up with the pace setters28/01/10 NORTHERN EXPOSURE: Southgate stays calm as Gibson sticks the boot in19/01/10 NORTHERN EXPOSURE: Magpies are not counting their chickens just yet15/01/10 VIEW FULL ARCHIVE But with every game lost, their grip on the tails of the top six weakens and it is more likely that we can judge McDonald next season when Middlesbrough's promotion challenge will also be taken seriously. Even this season's play-offs are starting to look a distant dream. By then it is likely the Middlesbrough squad assembled by Strachan will closely resemble the one at Chris Hughton's disposal. He may even find one or two will be prepared to make the switch to Teesside. After the defeat at St James's Park earlier in the season, Strachan could not hide his admiration for the Newcastle squad. 'Men,' he said, before heading north for the January sales to find men of his own. Newcastle have overpowered teams in every department to stay top and unbeaten at home (with Forest among the five still to visit St James's). Every player Hughton has selected has delivered for him and in most matches. The current squad will not cope in the top flight and every Newcastle fan knows it needs serious reinvestment. There are some tough questions ahead for the Newcastle board. Only Mike Ashley knows the answers. Sunderland's rare solo season was supposed to be the year they attempted to prise the title of the North East's number one club from Newcastle. And yet, here we go again. Gifted talent: Steed Malbranque must start performing for Sunderland The league table has an all too familiar look to it with 11 to go following Wigan's win against Liverpool last night, although a victory over Bolton at the Stadium of Light tonight will relieve the pressure and ease a few nerves around Wearside. Sunderland are a better side than those below them, it's just they've forgotten how to prove it, which doesn't help win football matches. Over to you Steve Bruce, who seems as bemused by their 14-game run without a win as his players. He remains convinced however that a fully-fit Sunderland can pull away from the pack, and it is a shame he is still without Andy Reid and Jordan Henderson, the two chief creators when the team were winning. You could ask where Steed Malbranque figures in all this, and only the under-achieving French midfielder with more ability than most at the club can answer that one. He will get a reprieve after his late night indiscretion last week, simply because of the lack of fit players. His club need performances from him now. As Bruce ponders options for next season and beyond, his career depends on it. Owner Ellis Short will be in the stadium tonight and by now he might have expected his team to be showing signs of returning his investment in a more comfortable league position. The atmosphere will certainly be more relaxed if Sunderland can move to the summit of the bottom eight Bruce, Short and Niall Quinn will meet up tomorrow and while there is no doubt the three men have the faith in each other to build on this year, the atmosphere will certainly be more relaxed if Sunderland can move to the summit of the bottom eight, significantly a point ahead of tonight's opponents and with a game in hand. But of course Bolton have made awkward their trademark over the years and they are just the opponents Sunderland don't need. They have three home games, with Manchester City and Birmingham City to follow. They need to win, they need to improve on the last two dreadful performances against Stoke and Fulham and they need to rise above the relegation zone. The North East derby needs to be in the Premier League.
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