Coaches put differences aside for high-stakes derby

LONDON • Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez and Sunderland counterpart Sam Allardyce played down their personal differences as they prepare to lead their sides in a crucial Tyne-Wear derby.

The clubs are separated by just a point on either side of the relegation zone, with Benitez taking charge of second-bottom Newcastle at home for the first time.

A sell-out 52,000 crowd will provide a passion-filled backdrop for a fixture in which Sunderland boast an eight-game unbeaten record stretching back 41/2 years.

Allardyce, then at Blackburn, 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' Champions League final win in 2005.

But the former Newcastle manager, who was sacked 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, whom he has beaten three times in 12 past meetings.

Benitez won seven of those, and Allardyce said: "There was a time when we had our conflict and we had our differences... You could not get any better than him in the market to bring in now."

The former Real Madrid and Chelsea manager also played down the feud. He said: "(Our relationship) is fine, he is professional and I am professional."

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.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Coaches put differences aside for high-stakes derby'. Print Edition | Subscribe