Hatem Ben Arfa

Mick Lowes has long been the voice of the Magpies on BBC Radio Newcastle, and he also writes a regular, exclusive blog for nufc.co.uk. Here, he offers his opinions on how the international break could see United's walking wounded get back to fitness, just in time for the big one at Sunderland...

The season so far has been a case of lulls between storms, especially when you consider Newcastle played 12 games in the opening six weeks. Yet an awful lot of that time has been spent doing nothing thanks to international breaks.

When you consider we played 43 games throughout the whole of last season, United have essentially played more than a quarter of that entire campaign already. So it's been very strange.

I'm not sure there's a way around these enforced breaks, and I'm sure if there was then Alan Pardew and every other manager in the Premier League would jump at the chance to spread them out a bit more evenly.

But there's no doubt that Newcastle, along with the other clubs involved in the Europa League, have suffered the most.

If there's any silver-lining, this current break has given the club the chance to get certain players fit for the games ahead - none more so than Tim Krul, Fabricio Coloccini, Steven Taylor and Danny Simpson.

Hopefully all four will have used this spell to their advantage, and it would give everyone a huge boost if they were fit and available for the Tyne-Wear derby next weekend.

So far there's been injuries that Newcastle simply didn't have last season, and I can't remember a prolonged period during the whole of last term where there were four first-choice players out of the reckoning.

That scenario has happened three or four times already this time around, and that has been the major difference so far. When you align that to the number of games the team has played, then it's not hard to understand why United have suffered once or twice over the past couple of months.

Looking ahead to the derby, and having come across my fair share of them over the years, the one thing that hasn't changed is that they're always difficult to predict and you're always reluctant to second-guess what's going to happen.

Newcastle have clearly had the better of this fixture for a considerable period of time now, but I can't remember a time where it's been as difficult to call the outcome of a derby game as it is this season.

Neither team have shown any real signs of consistency so far - both have played well enough and both have decent records in terms of not losing games, but offensively I don't think we've seen the best of Newcastle or Sunderland to date.

So, as is often the case, it'll be about who clicks and copes with it best on the day. I can't see one side bossing the game and I think nerves will play a big part, because both sides know they are capable but neither have turned it on yet.

Sunderland have lost only once this term in the league, and Newcastle just twice, and they are side-by-side in mid-table. But their respective records will look very different if there's a winner and a loser at the Stadium of Light, with the latter left firmly in mid-table and the former looking upwards.

The Black Cats are a difficult side to beat and their record proves that. Martin O'Neill produces very hard-working teams - dare I say it in the mould of his mentor Brian Clough - and first and foremost he sets up to not lose a game before working out how to win.

That's very much part of his philosophy, so with that in mind the onus may well be on Newcastle to take the game to Sunderland, as they have the kind of players that could hurt them - not least Shola Ameobi, with his record of seven derby goals, and Hatem Ben Arfa, who has arguably been the stand-out player recently.

All of Newcastle's weapons are forward-thinking, whereas Sunderland may set their stall out simply to make sure that they're competitive, but in Steven Fletcher they have a striker who is scoring as many goals as Demba Ba.

I'm led to believe Stéphane Sessègnon isn't playing as well as he was last season, but he was their best player in the derby at the Stadium of Light last term, so United will have to be wary of him as well.

Having said all of that, you're as likely to get a 3-2 thriller as you are a 0-0, and while we might have two of the Premier League's most prolific strikers on show, that by no means rules out a low-scoring draw. It's just too tough to call.

There'll be plenty of banter in the BBC Radio Newcastle studios in the build up to the game, and the biggest problem we have is making sure our coverage of both clubs doesn't meet.

One goes on one frequency and one goes on the other, and heaven forbid a Sunderland fan gets me and Ando or vice versa. It's a fate worse than death to have a call from an irate Newcastle fan who's been subjected to Nick Barnes and Gary Bennett!

A uniformed commentary on the game is out of the question, so it's a difficult one for the radio station, but believe me the banter goes on just as much as it does in any other workplace.

I always find derby games quite gut-wrenching affairs and I'm almost of the opinion that the sooner they are over the better. They're great for 90 minutes but the build up and the fall out are so intense, and it's only ever worth it if the result has gone Newcastle's way.

It's a tense time for everybody - from the players and the coaching staff to the fans of both clubs - and it's exactly the same for us commentators. But having said that, you wouldn't swap it for the world.

People talk about Newcastle versus Manchester United or Liverpool, but they don't even come close to the derby. I've always said that when Newcastle and Sunderland aren't in the same division, it's not the same, because to have those two games to look forward to is what it's all about.