By Chris Glancey
Former Sunderland midfielder Alex Rae has thrown down the gauntlet to Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner, insisting the pair need to win the midfield battle if they are to end their dreadful run on Tyneside.
Rae was in the last Black Cats side to win at St James' Park in November 2000 and is adamant Sunderland's midfield duo need to be at their best if they harbour hopes of picking up anything on Sunday.
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With Sunderland's last win at St James' an 11-year-old distant memory, the Scot believes Martin O'Neill's men must control the central areas and nullify the onslaught from the home side.
He said: "It's simple: if you want to win, you've got to win the midfield battle. That's what we did when we won there two times in a row.
"If you can't control the midfield then you're going to be in for a tough afternoon. Derby games take on their own significance and the midfield is vital.
"I look at the likes of Craig Gardner and Lee Cattermole and think they've got the ability to control the game. Cattermole has really flourished under Martin O'Neill and Gardener is a very tidy player.
"If they do their jobs properly, there's no reason why Sunderland can't go there and win."
However, Rae believes it's also important that Sunderland's front line are at their most potent.
It was under Peter Reid's reign when the Wearsiders last managed to claim all three points on Tyneside.
Then, though, they could rely on Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn to fire Sunderland to victory.
But with no striker managing to hit double figures this term, Rae thinks Fraizer Campbell could be the man who could condemn Alan Pardew to a first derby loss.
"I think it's important to have a scorer in the team and you need to have someone to put the ball in the net," Rae added.
"We had Kevin Phillips, but I look at young Fraizer Campbell and think he could be the man to cause Newcastle problems.
"He's just come back from a serious injury and he's hit the ground running. The goals he's scored have been brilliant and he looks really sharp.
"Campbell has the pace to get in behind the Newcastle defence and really cause them some problems."
No stranger to hostile rivalries, Rae ranks the Tyne-Wear encounter as the most feisty he's played in.
Having featured in the Old Firm derby and the clash between West Ham and Millwall, Rae admits Sunderland-Newcastle out-ranks them all.
He said: "I remember walking out the tunnel in the pouring rain a few years ago and the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
"There was 36,000 people screaming and it was very hostile. It's certainly one of the best derbies in England.
*Stephane Sessegnon was involved in Benin's Africa Cup of Nations qualifier clash with Ethiopia yesterday without incident and should be fit to face Newcastle.