Aleksandar Mitrovic rescues point for Newcastle against Sunderland
NEWCASTLE -- Three quick points from Newcastle 1-1 Sunderland, as Rafael Benitez's first home game in charge ended in a draw.
Survival scrap heats up
How costly will this prove for Sunderland? Leading 1-0 at St James' Park with just eight minutes to go, they were so close to cutting the rope and consigning Newcastle to the abyss.
And then Georginio Wijnaldum beat Dame N'Doye, lifted a cross to the back post and Aleksandar Mitrovic was there to bundle it home.
This was brutal. This was football with fire in its eyes, ringing in its ears and the taste of blood in its mouth. This was the result of years of mismanagement on Tyneside and Wearside; two limited teams with nothing to offer but fight. And "fight" is a relatively new development.
Sunderland should have won this. They were the better, more competent side. But Newcastle's reserve goalkeeper, Rob Elliot, was equal to nearly everything they could fire at him. He had no chance for Jermain Defoe's opening goal.
Wahbi Khazri had lofted, or at least tried to loft, his previous two corners towards the far post, but this one was different. None of the Newcastle players noticed Jan Kirchhoff lurking outside the penalty area, but Benitez did. He waved his arms and shouted, like a man trying to alert swimmers to the black fin cutting through the water. But no-one heard him.
Khazri slipped the ball back, Kirchhoff unleashed a ferocious shot and it was a wonder that Elliot's hands remained connected to his wrists when he leapt to parry. But the ball wasn't cleared and it fell to Defoe, who volleyed it straight through a crowd and into the bottom corner. Benitez wheeled around on his heels in frustration while the Sunderland supporters let out a mighty roar.
This is Sam Allardyce's Sunderland -- well organised, sturdy and always looking for an advantage with a clever set-piece. But not yet sturdy enough to hold out when Newcastle beat down their door for an equaliser. The fight for survival goes on.
Toon fight for Benitez
As the seconds ticked down, Mitrovic, concussed and wobbling, begged Benitez to let him back on the pitch. The doctors, quite rightly, ordered him back to the bench, but still he protested, wringing his hands while Benitez tried to reassure him that there was nothing left he could offer to the cause.
If Newcastle can take anything from this game, in itself a poor result, it is that something primal may have roused itself. They were disappointing for the most part but they wanted this. They fought for this. And that's something they haven't done for some time.
Benitez, after a week of intense analysis and training, made two changes to his line-up, bringing in Chancel Mbemba for Steven Taylor -- whose misguided header allowed Leicester to score in the Foxes' 1-0 win on Monday -- and Andros Townsend, who replaced Vurnon Anita. Mitrovic led the line with a re-energised Moussa Sissoko joining Ayoze Perez and Townsend in a trio of attacking midfielders. It was a line-up that promised much on the counter-attack, but not so much in terms of solidity in midfield where Wijnaldum and Jonjo Shelvey made a less than robust central pairing.
It was here that Newcastle struggled to find cohesion. Too many moves broke down, the result usually of the ubiquitous Kirchhoff. When Sunderland pounced, they focused their efforts on Newcastle's left, where Jack Colback looked uneasy from the start. The former Sunderland man was booked after just 18 minutes, but he could have been shown the yellow card much earlier. It was no surprise that he was the first player to be substituted.
What was a surprise was that Sissoko moved to left-back. Once again, the gaping holes in Newcastle's recruitment policy were exposed. Benitez had Elliot to thank that the scoreline wasn't any worse. Newcastle's goalkeeper was excellent, making a host of saves, the best of which was an incredible stop to deny Patrick van Aanholt before the hour.
But the Magpies kept coming forward, in spite of so many failings. As the end approached, Benitez had two midfielders as full-backs, but it didn't matter. Mitrovic, battered by Kirchhoff when he dropped deep to win headers, bruised by Lamine Kone when he pushed up, finally got his head on something.
Chasing a second in the last minute, he was hit hard and crumpled to the floor, the Sunderland defenders swift to run to his aid and summon medical staff.
His game was over, but his contribution was vital. Newcastle can still get out of this.
Signs of strife in the north east
St James Park' throbbed with noise and energy at kick-off, the shouts of the desperate and the defiant merging to create a visceral roar that rolled around like thunder. This region may have lacked success in recent years, but it will never want for passion.
But when will it be home to teams that are worthy of this support? The game started at a nerve-shredding pace, shuttling backwards and forwards to deafening shouts. It was fast and exciting, but it wasn't actually any good. Sunderland were the better side -- they are resilient where once they were hopeless -- but there isn't much evidence they can be any more than that.
This is not the fault of Allardyce, who has worked wonders in stiffening their resolve, and Newcastle's awfulness is certainly not the fault of Benitez. Neither man has been in position for long enough to take the blame for the state of these teams. This paucity of ability is the result of years of mistakes.
Sunderland and Newcastle are not continually fighting for their lives without reason. If both are relegated, few from outside the north east will mourn their passing. But is it too much to ask for at least one of them to learn from this season?
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.