Rafa and Newcastle’s big day. A first home game for our saviour (in waiting), and after Norwich had taken all three points from a visit to West Brom the day before things could hardly be more tense with the black and whites 2nd bottom and now 4 points from safety. Oh, yes they could. As if this wasn’t enough just layer on the fact this is THE DERBY of all derby games, and we all didn’t need reminding it was six defeats in a row against the great unwashed from down the road.
An hour before kick off saw Rafa name what appeared on the clubs website as a 4-4-2 with Mitro and Perez up front. Not the Rafa style so surely not?!
STARTING XI: Elliot, Janmaat (Anita), Mbemba, Lascelles, Colback (de Jong), Shelvey, Townsend (Cisse), Sissoko, Wijnaldum, Perez, Mitrovic
Kick off saw a mix of nerves and excitement the like of which has not been seen at SJP for quite some time and with Benitez announced a manager for the first time to the home crowd the atmosphere became almost unreal.
Newcastle would indeed start with two up front as the announced lineup had threatened. A deviation from a Rafa style as uncommon in recent times as Newcastle getting anything from the Mackems.
It perhaps shows what we now have in a manager. A manager of untold experience who will pick the team he believes has the best chance of winning each game. Playing two up front was a shock knowing his history but a welcome one knowing that we need to starting scoring and winning.
The game would settle into the expected pattern. Newcastle would have plenty of the ball, Sunderland would spend plenty of time on the floor slowing the game and taking every opportunity to pack our box with their centre backs and lump the ball in from every dead ball possible. Percentage football at its most pure (if that makes any sense whatsoever).
In truth Sunderland were the better side in the first half, and on 44 minutes the sucker punch. Just as in the away game it was just before the stoke of half time that the first significant moment arrived, only this time is was to be a half clearance from a Sunderland corner that fell to Defoe who smashed the ball through a crowded box to put the visitors one nil up. Cue the ‘usual’ scenes of wild away supporter celebration, the normal chorus of songs and the half time whistle.
In the second half Newcastle were much much better and piled forward in search of the equaliser pretty much from the off.
But as the half wore on there was a feeling of inevitability as Newcastle failed to meaningfully test Mannone in the Sunderland goal. Maybe a change of three would make the difference!?
First Colback was withdrawn from left back in place of de Jong, after being booked early in the first half just seeing him replaced rather than given his marching order having played over an hour against the diving Borini was a relief. Then Anita for Janmaat and finally Cisse for Townsend would see Newcastle finish with essentially 4 strikers on the pitch and Sissoko playing left wing back.
The changes pushed Sunderland ever deeper until the moment the Toon faithful had waited so long for. GOAL! A neat turn and cross from Wijnaldum at the byeline would meet the head of Mitrovic who did everything right, heading the ball back across and down past everything in red and white, ok, green!
Cue crazy breathless scenes around St James Park, culminating in Mitrovic being slide tacked to the ground by one over excited Newcastle fan who’d run unto the pitch to celebrate with his new hero.
Thankfully no harm done, the fan was escorted off, and Mitrovic received the customary booking for his shirt twirling and quite bonkers celebration. Nobody cared!
Newcastle didn’t stop pushing for an unlikely winner and in truth a draw was probably fair on the balance of both halves of football, although the stats certainly show NUFC had the best of it overall with 60% of possession and more efforts on target.
Time for one last drama as Mitrovic was knocked out cold whilst jumping for a cross in the SAFC box. It took Rafa to intervene and keep him from going back onto the pitch after he eventually came around. The sort of fight we will need in spades if we are going to get out of this mess over the next 8 games.
A point then. Not the three we needed but not perhaps the end of the world either. Now Rafa has two weeks of International break to mould his squad into something that can win the needed points from now until season end. It doesn’t get any easier from here but hey, that’s one record we didn’t want broken anyway. None in a row!
And then there were eight!