Newcastle United striker Aleksandar Mitrovic headed home an 83rd-minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Sunderland on Sunday that did nothing to ease both clubs’ Premier League relegation fears.
Both remain in the bottom three, but it could have been so much worse for Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez as his side trailed in his second game in charge against local rivals who had won their previous six derby encounters.
Jermain Defoe put Sunderland ahead shortly before half-time and they held on until Mitrovic’s late equaliser earned Newcastle their first point in five games, but this was an outcome that perfectly suited Norwich City, their chief rivals in the battle for survival.
In terms of quality, this was a long way from El Clasico, which Benitez had experienced recently as manager of Real Madrid, although the atmosphere was certainly comparable in a derby between two cities separated by only 15 miles in the northeast corner of England.
It is always fiercely contested, but never has so much been at stake in a clash widely billed as the £100 million ($144.7 million, 128.4 million euros) match because of the television cash that each team will lose if they are missing from the Premier League next season.
Yet, if they were anxious, the players did not show it during a high-powered and hectic first half.
Two teams who have won only 12 games between them this season, and found goals elusive, created a succession of chances.
Newcastle had the first when Mitrovic hooked his shot over the bar from Andros Townsend’s cross, while Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone saved from Townsend 12 minutes later and Jonjo Shelvey was inches wide with a 31st-minute free-kick.
Defoe, Jack Rodwell and Wahbi Khazri were the three men who dominated the opening 45 minutes for Sunderland, starting when Khazri’s cross and Rodwell’s header forced a 10th-minute save from the Newcastle goalkeeper Rob Elliot.
Defoe was inches away from putting Sunderland ahead on two occasions midway through the half, but there was no reprieve for Newcastle when he was presented with another opportunity a minute from the interval.
Benitez jumped from his seat when he sensed the danger as Fabio Borini was left unmarked on the edge of the area at a corner.
– Benitez reshapes –
The Italian collected the ball and unleashed a swerving shot that was palmed into the air by Elliot.
Newcastle failed to clear and Defoe drove in his 15th goal of the season before racing the length of the pitch to celebrate with Sunderland’s supporters.
It was Defoe’s eighth goal in his last nine away games, although this one owed much to Townsend’s failure to stay close to him as the action unfolded after the corner was taken.
Now Sunderland only had to prevent Newcastle scoring — a tall order for a team who have conceded more away goals than any team in the Premier League this season.
They were almost pegged back within three minutes of the restart.
A right-wing corner was again the source as Mannone failed to collect it and was grateful for Yann M’Vila’s clearance off the line from Ayoze Perez’s hooked shot.
Newcastle squandered another excellent opportunity only eight minutes later when Moussa Sissoko had time to steady himself, but still mishit his shot following a cross from Townsend.
It was an awkward opening to the half for Sunderland, but they regained their earlier composure and almost extended their lead when Patrick van Aanholt forced another splendid save from Elliot.
Benitez reacted by reshaping his side and, at one stage, had six midfielders on the pitch as he searched for the right formula.
He kept faith with Mitrovic and was rewarded when the much-criticised striker equalised when he headed in Georginio Wijnaldum’s cross in the 83rd minute.
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