Relief for O'Neill as derby deadlock averts crisis talk
Sunderland 1 Newcastle Utd 1
Rarely will a game discussed so intently and anticipated for so long be forgotten so quickly.
Few derbies can rival Sunderland and Newcastle's for intensity and passion, but few will turn out to be as disappointing as this latest offering from the Premier League's north-east corner.
There was a sending-off and as much endeavour as you could possibly want from a battle for regional supremacy, but Newcastle, who took an early lead through Yohan Cabaye, found it far too simple to repel Sunderland's attacking threat, even after Cheick Tiote's sending-off for a late tackle on Steven Fletcher.
Indeed, while there was the blow of conceding a goal with only five minutes of regulation time remaining, Newcastle left with far more reason to be optimistic about what the future holds than their hosts.
A share of the points did little for either side's league position in the short term and while Sunderland celebrated their late equaliser with gusto, the overwhelming emotion on Wearside was relief.
Despite playing with an extra man for more than an hour, they left it to the final minutes to salvage a draw from a game that appeared to be slipping agonisingly away from them once again.
Sunderland have beaten their local rivals just once at home in 32 years and while a draw spared manager Martin O'Neill the stress and strain of explaining another defeat, his team's performance was about as convincing as a British coalition minister's excuses for another public relations faux pas.
Had he lost this match, O'Neill would have been dealing with the first full-blown crisis of his Sunderland reign just 10 months after he replaced Steve Bruce .
Sunderland have won just one of their last 15 league games, yet remain just two points behind Newcastle with a game in hand. It has not been a disastrous start for either, but neither has it been a good one. For the time being these fiercest of rivals are stuck together in a mid-table pack, with Newcastle looking the more likely to emerge from it pushing upwards.
For 65 minutes, Alan Pardew's side played with 10 men, and for 60 of them they did so comfortably, happy to defend the lead Cabaye had given them.
A mistake by Danny Rose, playing for the first time since he was subjected to horrific racist abuse in Serbia with England U-21s, gifted Hatem Ben Arfa possession. He fed the ball to Shola Ameobi, whose shot was saved by Simon Mignolet, only for Cabaye to sweep in the rebound.
Newcastle looked the better team. Sunderland looked anxious, even after Tiote was shown a straight red card, his boot connecting with Fletcher's shin rather than the ball as he fought for possession.
A yellow card would have been a better one for referee Martin Atkinson to show in the context of the game, but by the letter of the law he probably did not have any other choice.
Sunderland still struggled to create anything from open play, Adam Johnson's curling shot falling just wide before a long-range free-kick from Craig Gardner fizzed wide.
In the second half, Sunderland travelled down a one-way street with a fluorescent yellow 'no entry' sign at the end of it.
Attack after attack was launched, only to come to a shuddering halt on the edge of the area, where Newcastle's rearguard action was impeccably organised by their captain Fabricio Coloccini.
The centre-back has been sorely missed during his injury lay-off and his recovery from a niggling hamstring strain could not have been better timed.
From his presence alone, those around him looked more assured, more confident, more certain of their jobs. On the rare occasions Sunderland did appear to have prised open the two banks of four Newcastle lined up, it was Coloccini who snuffed out any danger.
Sunderland were worryingly devoid of ideas in the final third, their two wingers, Johnson and James McClean, largely anonymous no matter how many times they swapped flanks.
Newcastle appeared to be heading for another famous win on Wearside, but with Coloccini suffering with cramp and forced to make way for Steven Taylor -- the target for some toxic chants following his mocking pre-match comments about the strength of Sunderland's squad -- the defence lost its focus for a fateful second.
Seb Larsson's free-kick was a good one, dipping and curling as it came out of the sky, but John O'Shea's header was going wide, only to hit Demba Ba in the face and wrong-foot goalkeeper Tim Krul. It was a fortunate moment to secure a lucky escape. (© Daily Telegraph, London)