Sunderland pounce for a late equaliser
Sunderland 1 Newcastle 1:WHEN STEVEN Taylor declared that not one Sunderland player was good enough to join him in Newcastle United’s first XI it seemed that he had written Martin O’Neill’s pre-match team-talk.
Popular theory had it that a highly motivated Sunderland would delight in destroying his argument but, instead, Taylor – parked, diplomatically, on the bench by Alan Pardew for the first 79 minutes – sat back and watched several members of O’Neill’s side do their level best to prove him right.
Rather than deconstruct Taylor’s words, a disappointing Sunderland were a little fortunate to earn a point, courtesy of Demba Ba’s own goal following a late free-kick, after playing against 10 men for most of the afternoon in the wake of Cheik Tiote’s controversial dismissal.
“Newcastle were very strong,” said O’Neill. “They caused us plenty of problems and, although the sending off gave us an opportunity, we didn’t take enough time and care in the final third. Sheer pressure alone eventually yielded us the goal and we had time to get another but, with Newcastle having defended so strongly with 10 men, that would have been harsh on them.”
Last week O’Neill joked that his players must have got their caffeine tablets and their sleeping pills confused ahead of Sunderland’s last game – a defeat at Manchester City – and the initial suspicion was that a similar thing had happened here.
They were behind after only three minutes. Hatem Ben Arfa zipped beyond Danny Rose down the right, Simon Mignolet blocked Ba’s shot and the impressive Yohan Cabaye redirected the rebound into the bottom corner.
Although Mike Williamson did well to intercept Sebastian Larsson’s cross with Steven Fletcher inches away from a potentially goalscoring connection Sunderland struggled horribly to retain possession.
Events only began turning their way when Tiote tussled with Jack Colback. Ironically, the whistle had just gone for a Newcastle free-kick as Fletcher nipped in front of the pair to steal the ball and, lunging into a challenge off balance, Tiote caught the striker on a shin with his studs. Despite being high and late it was arguably worthy of a yellow rather than a red card but Martin Atkinson opted for the latter.
“I was surprised to see red,” said Pardew. “He’s not tried to do the player, but he’s late and the referee’s deemed it a sending off. The fourth official might have played a part – Martin [O’Neill] was standing right behind him at the time.”
Pardew responded to his side’s numerical deficit by withdrawing Shola Ameobi – preferred to the dropped Papiss Cisse in a 4-4-2 visiting formation – and dispatching James Perch to fight midfield fires.
To considerable Wearside frustration Newcastle, defensively well marshalled by the fabulously assured Fabricio Coloccini, largely restricted the home threat to set pieces. “Coloccini was like Bobby Moore today,” enthused Pardew. “He was terrific.”
Unfortunately for Pardew, Coloccini, recently recovered from hamstring trouble, was forced off following a bout of cramp and Taylor’s belated arrival.
When Larsson - a dead-ball specialist so greatly admired by Pardew that Newcastle’s manager tried to sign him last year - slung in the latest in a long line of free kicks it was first met by Republic of Ireland international John O’Shea and then deflected beyond the wrong-footed Tim Krul after smacking into Ba’s face.
“It would have been one of the greatest victories if we’d clung on for the win,” said Pardew. “Maybe if Coloccini had been able to stay on we might have seen it out but I’m so proud of my players. With 11 on the pitch we were a class act and with 10 our spirit was tremendous. We’re back on song.”