Sunderland 1 Newcastle 0
Reminders of the old adage about form being temporary but class permanent can rarely have been more welcome.
A truly terrible game hit almost ridiculous lows before being rescued by Jermain Defoe’s sublimely brilliant volleyed winner. Thanks to a single swipe of the former England striker’s left boot, Dick Advocaat’s hopes of saving Sunderland from relegation increased appreciably as John Carver’s chances already slender chances of staying in charge of Newcastle United next season diminished further.
Along the way Sunderland recorded a fifth straight north-east derby victory against their Tyneside neighbours on a day when Carver’s injury- and suspension-hit side did not test Costel Pantilimon until the 78th minute.
When Mike Williamson is a team's sole fit senior centre half, that side has problems. That was the predicament Carver found himself in on Wearside but it had threatened to become appreciably worse when Daryl Janmaat began limping in the warm-up. Really a right back, Janmaat is currently serving as Williamson's partner and his loss would have been little short of catastrophic for the visitors.
Happily for Carver, and perhaps courtesy of an injection, Janmaat appeared for the first half, albeit moving a little tentatively at times as Sunderland’s early attacking zeal provided he and his fellow defenders with some uncomfortable moments.
Yet despite the presence of three forwards – Jermain Defoe, Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham – in Advocaat's starting XI, Sunderland's final ball proved consistently wanting, dictating that Tim Krul was not exerted unduly. Such attacking bluntness has been a recurring theme this season and Newcastle certainly had reason to be grateful for it as they struggled to impose themselves on the game.
Significantly Moussa Sissoko, Carver's key midfielder, initially failed to make an impact, leaving Sunderland's Lee Cattermole generally free to dominate central midfield. The importance of the duel between that pair was highlighted when, for once, Sissoko won a challenge against Cattermole. Immediately Newcastle counterattacked, briefly morphing into a very different, suddenly cohesive side. Even so, any scouts from Sissoko's would-be Champions League suitors will surely have noted that such positive cameos on his part were few and far between.
It hardly helped Carver's cause that the Tyneside injury crisis had forced him to relocate Jack Colback from his customary berth alongside Sissoko to left back. Once of Sunderland, Colback's every touch was jeered to the echo but he did a sufficiently good job of keeping Defoe quiet that Advocaat soon ordered Defoe and Wickham, stationed either side of Fletcher, to swap flanks.
Not that Defoe could escape Colback that easily; when the former England striker finally escaped Ryan Taylor and cut in from the left, Carver's left back for the day accelerated across the area to intercept.
If Colback was probably prepared to accept the role of “Ginger, Geordie b***tard” pantomime villain things took a somewhat darker turn when a Sunderland fan hurled a golf ball in his direction. Thankfully it missed.
Visiting Jonás Gutiérrez fulfilled a quasi-sweeping role that the sometime left winger was gradually growing into. Considering that only a few short months ago Gutiérrez was undergoing chemotherapy for testicular cancer his was a remarkable performance, but he and his team-mates were caught cold when Wickham stretched his legs down the right and prepared to cross for the unmarked Defoe. This game was not dubbed the “donkey derby” for nothing though – and in a moment somewhat emblematic of his season Wickham succeeded merely in passing straight to Janmaat.
Fortunately for Advocaat, Defoe was about to remind everyone why the very best defenders once feared him. With one seamless swipe of his left boot the former Spurs striker not only raised the tone but gave Sunderland a half time lead.
It began with an unpromising long ball punted forward for Fletcher to head up in the air, apparently destined for nowhere in particular. The good news for Advocaat was that the ball dropped onto Defoe’s left foot and, from well outside the area, he promptly sent a highly technically demanding volley arcing over Krul before watching it hit the top corner. Carver could have been forgiven for feeling a stake had been driven through his heart.
As the repercussions of a split second’s brilliance totally out of sync with almost everything that had gone before sunk in, Sunderland’s board presumably remembered why they had agreed to pay Defoe £70,000 a week.
Newcastle, meanwhile, were confronted by the unpalatable prospect of a fifth straight north-east derby defeat. Carver responded by replacing Yoan Gouffran – another one played out of position, in this case in central midfield – with Emmanuel Rivière as he switched formation from 4-1-4-1 to 4-4-2. The only downside was that Rivière is still to score a Premier League goal.
Despite scoring a hat-trick against Gibraltar for Scotland last week Fletcher, too, has endured a pretty woeful time in front of goal domestically. It was no real surprise when he spurned a decent chance to double Sunderland’s lead by shooting wastefully over the bar from 18 yards.
Such misses can prove costly, and might have been in this instance had Costel Pantilimon not reacted smartly to repel Rémy Cabella’s shot. Seventy-eight minutes had passed and it was the first save Sunderland’s goalkeeper had been required to make.
Carver’s side were to have one more chance. It was a good one too. When Janmaat flicked on Taylor’s corner, the ball fell kindly for an Ayoze Pérez volley but he could not quite control it and the ball squirmed over the bar. It seemed very much the story of Newcastle’s season.
All that remained was for Advocaat to stand, arms folded, at the final whistle, a slow smile creeping over his face as he surveyed the raucous celebrations taking place in virtually every corner of the packed stadium with evident approval.