Sunderland very probably won't beat Newcastle United in FA Cup clash - but just imagine if they do

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The Black Cats host the Magpies in the FA Cup on Saturday afternoon.

The naked man does not fear the pickpocket. There are those who would have you believe that Sunderland's looming Tyne and Wear derby scrap with Newcastle United on Saturday afternoon is something of a free hit for the Black Cats. To a certain extent, you can see their logic. The visiting Magpies are the richest club in world football, their hosts have one of the smallest wage bills across the whole of the Championship. Ordinarily, Mackem prospects would be viewed with appropriate leniency.

But pride is a hellish thing, and while losing may well be understandable, losing brutally will be nauseatingly unpalatable. You see, there is no such thing as a true 'free hit' when Sunderland play Newcastle, and while the naked man does not fear the pickpocket, he should perhaps have some apprehensions about the bloke who can peel the skin from his bones like a ripe satsuma.

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The two clubs, striped like warring factions of zebras and barber poles, hurtle towards the FA Cup third round in varying states of disarray. For their part, Newcastle have won just once in their past eight outings across all competitions, and will march to Wearside, injury-ravaged and dog-tired, off the back of a defeat against Liverpool in which they conceded 34 shots on goal and an xG of 7.27 - the highest in Premier League history. It was like the Ala-Mo Salah.

By contrast, Sunderland are still adjusting to life under Michael Beale, and while initial impressions were, in the diplomatic parlance, underwhelming, there are signs that public opinion towards the new manager is softening notably. An unflustered 2-0 victory over Preston North End on New Year's Day made it seven points in three matches for the Black Cats, and when the man they dub 'Ukraine Bolt', Nazariy Rusyn, became the first Sunderland striker to score a goal this season on the stroke of half-time, I involuntarily unleashed a bellow of such rapturous disbelief that my dog got all het up, barked at me with disdain, and then promptly vomited on the living room rug. It was a price worth paying.

I must confess that my affections for Beale have undergone something of a Hokey Cokey in recent weeks; I've been 'Beale In', I've been 'Beale Out', but let me tell you something, if Sunderland can somehow cause an upset and oust Newcastle from the cup on Saturday afternoon, I will, without remorse, be shaking it all about. It is, however, a monstrous 'if'.

We can pick at the gammy scab of form and ponder on the intangible influence of a sold-out Stadium of Light, but this is still very much, on paper and in the beady eyes of the bookmakers, a one-sided affair - and with good reason. Newcastle were, until recently, a Champions League club, and for all of their treatment room tribulations, they still pack the kind of punch usually reserved for spring-loaded ACME boxes in Looney Tunes sketches. The starting XI named by Eddie Howe against Liverpool, even bereft of several integral names, cost the Magpies a combined £284 million. Sunderland's equivalent offering earlier in the day against Preston cost just £7.5 million, and their record signing still remains the £13.6 million flop Dider Ndong, of whom we do not speak unless absolutely necessary.

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There is, therefore, an undeniable gulf between the two sides - monetarily, ambitiously, almost sadistically. And this is where things get truly frightening. Because on their day, Newcastle have the potential to slaughter an opposition. Already this season, they have put five past Aston Villa, four past Paris Saint-Germain, and eight past Sheffield United - a team who did the double over Sunderland just last season. Hell, even in limp defeat at Anfield they somehow managed to bag a brace.

There is no manner of losing to Newcastle that doesn't hurt, but there is a version of events in which the Black Cats, on home soil, are subjected to the kind of disembowelment that haunts them for generations. Do I think it will happen? Not particularly, no. But, that being said, is it a much more palpable possibility than it was when the two rivals last met, almost eight years ago? Yes, it is. You'd be foolish to suggest otherwise.

In that sense, this is no 'free hit' for Sunderland. Given the broader context, expectations are low, but that does not mean that those devoted, beleaguered fans in red and white could stomach anything like a historic pestling. Pride, as I have already said, is a hellish thing.

Not quite as hellish as the whiff of giddy, undeserved hope, though. You see, I will be at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, and I, like every other Mackem there, will cling to an improbable dream until it is wrestled from my cramped, white-knuckled grasp by the trill of the final whistle.

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I will lie awake on Friday night musing over the prospect of Jack Clarke tying Dan Burn in knots until his giraffe legs resemble a balloon animal. I will clamber out of bed the next morning and, after an obligatory period of shadowboxing in the bedroom mirror, will proceed to meditate fretfully, quivering on the sofa until it is time to leave the house, reminiscing about the surge of ecstasy I felt when Amad Diallo's free-kick whistled into the stanchion against Luton Town last May, or when Paddy Roberts curled home a stoppage time lifeline against Watford a few weeks prior and I nearly suplexed somebody's Nan off the Premier Concourse in blind jubilation. (She was fine; we settled out of court.)

I will think back to these paradisaical snapshots and I will wonder how it might feel to experience them again - as the underdog, against the Mags, after eight years of enforced deprivation. I will wonder if my nerves can withstand the strain, or whether, on the remote off-chance that we do take the lead, my head will instantly explode, leaving my neck smoking like the barrel of a cartoon blunderbuss. I will think back to eight years ago, when my dad was still alive, and I will hope that he is watching somehow, somewhere, knowing just how much he would have loved all of this.

I will stand on the terraces at half past noon - Row 16, Seat 128 - with my best mate to one side of me and a complete stranger to the other, knowing that for 90 charged minutes such distinctions will blur as we all, through scientifically-unproven pseudo-faith-based telekinesis, collectively will a team of red and white kindergarten wizards into the etchings of windswept folklore. I will go in expecting absolutely nothing and craving absolutely everything.

Sunderland very probably won't beat Newcastle United on Saturday afternoon. But bloody hell, imagine if they do.

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