Newcastle 1 Sunderland 1 Sunday 20 March 1.30pm
It was widely said beforehand that they don’t come much bigger than this.
Rafa Benitez’ first home game as NUFC manager, and first real chance to prepare his team, came in the form of arguably the most important Derby in 26 years – as today’s winner would step on their rivals’ heads in moving away from relegation danger. The nerves were unbearable in the build-up.
There were some real positives when the Newcastle team was released, with a formation seemingly set up to attack, a tactic that Steve McClaren was sadly incapable of in his disastrous tenure. Colback wedged in at left-back wasn’t ideal but hopefully we’d be on the front foot for most of the game anyway.
The first half however, dampened any hope of a glorious renaissance beginning today. United were firmly on the back foot as the mackems asked all the questions, with Colback’s unfamiliar role being exploited, particularly after he had received an early booking for wellying Borini off the pitch.
I spent a lot of the half feeling grateful for the welcome return of Chancel Mbemba, who seemed to be the diffuser of most opposition forays forward.
However, the lack of a holding midfielder saw Shelvey dropping deep, often level with the centre-halves, so any impetus to get forward was pretty much nullified, with the new skipper never finding a position to add to four excellent assists in three home games.
The raucous atmosphere that greeted the start of the game was firmly in recession by the time Jermain Defoe gave the visitors the lead. Twice previously, the former England striker had been presented with shooting chances and twice they had been spurned, so allowing him a third was only going one way. Sunderland pulled a set-piece routine that drew the defence out before Borini’s long range effort was beaten away by Elliot. The defence did not react quick enough and Defoe launched another dagger through black and white hearts. Once again we were caught out in the moments before half time.
Incidentally, if we are to lose this battle for safety to the unwashed, then Ashley, Carr et al need to take a long hard look at Defoe, a fine example of what their pathetic and ill-thought out transfer policy has cost us. Despite his age, his wages and his lack of sell-on potential, the mackems sprung for Defoe last year to spearhead their survival fight. This proven Premier League goal scorer has delivered with vital goals and our failure to pursue a similar option in January could well be the difference. Meanwhile Henri Saivet was once again an unused substitute (ED:…and Doumbia not even making the bench).
The second half of this game will historically be viewed one of two ways; either the turning point in Newcastle growing the confidence to launch a survival bid, or the desperate efforts of an ill-equipped side showing why they are set for relegation. Undoubtedly, the second half belonged to United, but how much of that we owe to our old friend Big Sam is open to question.
I’d like to think we chased Allardyce out of St James Park because of his anti-football, stifling tactics such as trying to strangle a game to win 1-0 (and often failing), or making negative substitutions that favour the opposition.
The fat man was guilty of both of these as the snot-green visitors sat back in a packed defensive line and invited United on.
The confidence that this brewed saw the game gradually turn in our favour, with some probing attacks carving out actual opportunities. Perez went close as his back post angled drive was cleared off the line by M’Vila. At the other end, a fine (potentially crucial) save from Elliot to keep out Van Aanholt – Sunderland’s only real chance of the second half.
As the clock agonisingly ticked away, substitutions were made that consistently brought us further into the ascendancy. I would argue that the introduction of Siem de Jong for Colback on the hour was the most important factor, as the Dutchman occupied the middle of the park very well, breaking down attacks and finding forward balls consistently.
When Janmaat was replaced by Anita he also seemed to add a bit more steel to the side and finally, the introduction of the returning Cisse for the tiring Townsend saw an element of uncertainty thrown in, that clearly troubled the mackem defence. I also wonder how big a role the Senegalese will have in the fight ahead as whatever you may think of him overall, he has saved us on many occasions previously.
Conversely, the visitors seemed to weaken themselves with each change, with the dangerous Khazri removed for N’Doye and O’Shea replacing Kaboul. The presence (or rather lack thereof) of the former Man Utd man was to prove a factor in our late equaliser and, hopefully, lifeline.
If you watch football regularly you will surely be amazed at how often people get away with foul throws. However, Yedlin’s comical attempt at bowling the ball onto the pitch was always going to be called out for the amateurish cack it was, as the officials rightly reversed the throw. United quickly switched the play and Wijnaldum’s looping cross was thundered in by Mitrovic past the dawdling O’Shea. Relief.
Mitrovic went mental, removing his shirt (stupid booking) and colliding with a pitch invader who thought the best way to celebrate a long-awaited derby goal would be to poleaxe a £15million striker. I’d have far rather the team quickly retrieved the ball as the momentum was firmly ours with seven minutes to play.
The fact that daft Sam responded by removing their best player (Kirchoff) to throw on clown pants Cattermole meant there could only be one winner surely.
Frustratingly, the final moments were worn down by Van Aanholt exaggerating a cramp and a worrying time where Mitrovic went down heavily after jumping for a header. He seemed out cold and the panicked response of the Sunderland defenders who rushed to put him in the recovery position did not add to the confidence here. Fortunately, the Serb seemed to recover fully and needed to be restrained by Benitez and the fourth official from trying to re-enter the fray. The match had dwindled by now and the ref seemed to blow up early given the stoppages.
So, with seven minutes to go I’d have snapped your hand off if you’d offered me not getting beat again, but this point was just not enough. We remain second bottom, with our neighbours a point ahead and equally as troubled, with no doubt that the real winners of the Tyne-Wear derby were Norwich City, whose surprise win at West Brom lifted them out of the bottom three.
We all said beforehand that they don’t come much bigger than this, but it turns out they do.
The trip to Carrow Road up next must yield a three point return and then maybe we can look back on Mitrovic’s goal as the point where things started to go right.
However, today’s failure to gain a maximum return could prove costly, and the next few weeks will certainly prove as excruciatingly tense as eight straight derbies.
Here are the stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle 1 Sunderland 1
Newcastle: Mitrovic 83
Sunderland: Defoe 44
Possession was Newcastle 60% Sunderland 40%
Total shots were Newcastle 17 and Sunderland 14
Shots on target were Newcastle 8 and Sunderland 4
Corners were Newcastle 2 and Sunderland 5
Team: Elliot, Janmaat (Anita 71), Lascelles, Mbemba, Colback (de Jong 62), Townsend (Cisse 76), Shelvey, Sissoko,Wijnaldum, Perez, Mitrovic
Unused Subs: Darlow, Saivet, Taylor, Riviere
Ref: Martin Atkinson
(Read the instant Newcastle fan/writer reaction here)