Aleksandar the great
Newcastle’s hopes alive thanks to Mitrovic but fan sends him flying
Like two crabs in a barrel fighting for their lives, in their desperation to climb out of trouble, Newcastle United and Sunderland merely made sure their rivals did not get away from them.
A draw was probably the fair result in a typically frenetic and frenzied Tyne-Wear derby that brought relief and disappointment in equal measure.
Sunderland will feel they threw three points away, given they had looked so comfortable after taking the lead through Jermain Defoe, while Newcastle will feel it was a point gained, given they equalised so late through Aleksandar Mitrovic, ending a run of six consecutive defeats to their bitterest rivals.
Yet, the true beneficiaries of this result were Norwich City and Crystal Palace. Neither of the clubs directly below them in the relegation tussle got the win that would have hauled them closer to the drop zone.
A draw was not good enough for either North-East side. At the end of a high-speed, high-drama, lowquality match, in which the stakes were so high, it was difficult for anyone to remain calm and composed. The reality of the situation is that both these big clubs could be playing in the Championship next season. It would be a disaster for both and this match did little to suggest either are good enough to avert it.
Defoe might have scored after just two minutes, but his turn and shot flew into the Gallowgate End.
Newcastle responded and Mitrovic volleyed over from a similar distance from an Andros Townsend cross. They are the sort of chances the £12 million signing from Anderlecht has been missing all season.
A pattern was set, whenever one side went close to scoring, the other – sometimes immediately – did the same at the other end. They were like two boxers, low on footwork, but high on bravado, determined to trade punches.
Eventually a big blow would land, but they mainly swung and missed. Jack Rodwell had a header tipped over the bar from a corner, Moussa Sissoko might have converted a deep cross at the far post but sent it back across goal before Jonjo Shelvey fired wide from the edge of the area.
Sunderland remained calm and Defoe missed another good chance; picked out by Rodwell, he nipped in front of Chancel Mbemba, but steered a shot wide.
Minutes later, Townsend cut inside and his shot was spilled by Vito Mannone. Again, Sunderland answered, Whabi Khazri dragging a shot wide with Defoe inches away from turning it in as it flashed across the face of goal.
Newcastle went close again, as Shelvey’s free-kick fell narrowly wide, but there was more assurance in Sunderland’s play and they took the lead just before the break. Unsurprisingly, it came from a setpiece.
A corner was pulled back to Fabio Borini, whose swerving shot through a crowd was superbly kept out by goalkeeper Rob Elliot. However, Elliot did not get the ball over the bar and Newcastle could not clear the danger. When Mbemba failed to get enough distance on a header, the ball fell perfectly for Defoe – who had wisely dropped away from the scramble on the line – to steer it through a narrow gap.
The goal sparked bedlam high in the Leazes End where Sunderland’s supporters were gathered. It sparked fear and loathing around the rest of the stadium.
Rafael Benítez, the Newcastle manager, was not impressed by his side’s first-half display and they were better in the second, but once again their lack of penetration going forward was a concern.
They were almost level within three minutes of the restart, but Yann M’Vila was in the right place to clear Ayoze Perez’s stabbed effort off the line.
Newcastle tried to build up a head of steam. Mitrovic glanced a header straight into the arms of Mannone. Sissoko missed an even better chance moments later, badly scuffing a volley at the far post after a surging run and cross from Townsend.
Sunderland were happy enough and they almost snatched a second, when Newcastle’s weak defence could not halt Khazri’s progress and Rodwell smashed a shot, which Elliot did well to get a strong hand to.
Belief began to visibly drain from Newcastle. Sunderland players grew in stature, sensing their hosts’s growing unease.
A second goal would have killed Newcastle off, but Sunderland seemed content to carry on frustrating them.
Benítez threw on Papiss Demba Cissé as his final substitute, a last throw of the dice. The Senegal international asked different questions, playing on the shoulder of the last defender. Sunderland looked unsure for the first time.
But it was not Cissé who scored, instead it was the centre-forward who has infuriated so many who turned himself into a hero. It was a brilliant finish from Mitrovic too, as Georginio Wijnaldum chipped a cross to the far post and the Serbian rose to head it back across into the bottom far corner, narrowly evading John O’Shea’s attempts at a block.
Mitrovic ended the game furiously arguing with Benítez and Newcastle’s medical staff after he was forced to come off with concussion, moments after the two benches had squared up to each other as tensions boiled over.
There were handshakes and cuddles at the end, but the Football Association will await the referee’s report with interest.