Tyne-Wear derby shows soccer its best

Welcome back to soccer after the international break! If you’ll indulge me this week, I’d like to start with a game that is near and dear to my heart: the Tyne-Wear derby between Sunderland and Newcastle.

These are tremendous matches and this was a contest all of us at Newcastle looked forward to each season. No offense to my old colleague Mr. Ruud Gullit, but it’s not just “another game.” It is the rare game where if you win, you can lift everyone in your city for four or five months just by giving them those bragging rights. The further North you go in Britain, the more passionate the fans get about these games, and for my money, this is close in intensity to the Old Firm match in Scotland.

When I led the team out one year at the Stadium of Light, it was so loud I couldn’t even hear myself speak. People weren’t booing – it was just the raw noise and chatter that comes around every game of this magnitude. I remember standing there and knowing that if we won this game, all the folks could go to work the next day at their jobs or the factories and really feel good. It was a huge motivation for us to succeed.

This Sunday we saw a 1-1 draw and it was a fair result. The turning point clearly was that red card that Chiek Tiote took, and I will say, in the modern game it was the right call. Things have changed a bit from my day, and while I don’t think the foul was intentional, it was late, it was high and it was reckless. You put a referee in that position and he has no choice but to reach for the back pocket.

That card allowed the fans to really back Sunderland, and you saw the energy they had. But I didn’t see them as a side that was really able to break my Toon down – I thought Sunderland might have scored off set pieces, but not with a passing move. All in all, it was fair and it was good advertisement for football in the Northeast. Oh, and, Sunderland? We’ll see you again in April!

Around the Premier League this week, we once again have to commend Chelsea. Their performance against a very good Spurs team really showed character. I think the Blues are playing the best soccer in the league right now, and the fact that they are four points clear and hold a great goal difference is no accident. Even without some of their veterans – Frank Lampard, John Terry – they showed so much resilience. Their movement in midfield is exquisite, and the fact that we are seeing such quality from young men like Oscar and Eden Hazard speaks volumes about Roberto Di Matteo’s program.

Arsenal are unfortunately at the other end of the scale. I’m delighted for Chris Hughton because he was really under pressure at Norwich, but this was a match the Gunners should have won. We’ve seen this so often from Arsenal though: they put themselves in a position to make a run at the top of the table and then go flat. They were so lethargic up front and the passing wasn’t where it needed to be at all. Norwich deserves praise, but that game came down to what Arsenal failed to do. And I have to say again: Arsenal need a goalkeeper. I’m not convinced by Vito Mannone or Wojciech Szczesny.

Manchester City are making a habit of coming back. WBA aren’t a bad team at all, and this was a real fight, but Roberto Mancini’s side keeps showing us that toughness and desire. Edin Dzeko’s box-to-box run to finish it off really showed that determination. Mancini won’t be happy with the heart-stopping nature of their play, but you know, coming back isn’t a bad habit to have. And let’s face it: winning the second title is very difficult. With the fire this lot are showing, I am not counting them out of anything.

We need to congratulate Wayne Rooney on his 200th goal. His show alongside Danny Welbeck and Robin van Persie Saturday was phenomenal against a battling Stoke team. When you have firepower like that, you have a dangerous team, and that’s what United are. That game was also a lot of fun for me personally because of the event we had in New York City at Terminal 5, and also because we got to welcome Grant Wahl onto our broadcast. It was a good day all around!

I think there are real questions at the back for United still — but one thing I do not question is Rio Ferdinand’s decision not to wear a ‘Kick It Out’ shirt. In my opinion, he was correct. He’s an individual, and wearing that shirt was not compulsory. I think he’s allowed to have his own opinion. Do you? Let me know on my Twitter account: @warrenbarton2 or send a message via @FOXSoccer. We always use the best tweets on our shows.

And speaking of, I hope to see you Tuesday as the Champions League resumes. We’ve got some great games! Thanks as always for reading, and I’ll chat with you next week!