Mitrovic saves point for Newcastle to ease Benitez’s pain
New manager endured uncomfortable first home game against Sunderland
Aleksandar Mitrovic collides with a fan as he celebrates scoring Newcastle United’s equaliser in the Premier League game against Sunderland at St James’ Park. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Newcastle United 1 Sunderland 1
An afternoon on which Rafael Benitez frequently looked like a man enduring a most unwelcome introduction to the despair Steve McClaren previously experienced here, ended with a tantalising glimmer of hope for Newcastle United’s new manager.
Aleksandar Mitrovic’s equaliser not only ended Sunderland’s sequence of six straight north-east derby wins but keeps the race to avoid relegation wide open. If Sam Allardyce was probably slightly happier with the point, Newcastle have it all to play for when the visit Norwich City after the international break.
Sunderland spent the first half looking positively petrified whenever Andros Townsend was on the ball but relatively comfortably when the sometime England winger was off it. Although Moussa Sissoko, operating on the left, had his moments, Jan Kirchhoff, the 6ft 5in quasi-sweeper Allardyce deploys between defence and midfield, generally maintained visiting control while, further forward, Wahbi Khazri kept the home defence on their toes.
Appropriately it was Khazri’s pass which prefaced the Fabio Borini shot which led to Jermain Defoe’s opening goal. Although Rob Elliot performed wonders to parry that effort, Benitez’s defence could merely half clear it and the ball fell for Defoe to score courtesy of a fabulous left foot volley.
If McClaren was watching from his holiday base in Barbados, Newcastle’s former manager would have fully empathised with the look of deep concern writ large on Benitez’s face.
Indeed the only moments when he had cause for early optimism invariably involved Townsend running at Allardyce’s defence from deep. One on occasion the winger forced Vito Mannone into a decent parry and, on another, his cross precipitated Mitrovic clipping a very presentable opening over the bar. By half-time that must have felt like a very big miss for Newcastle’s manager.
By way of further complicating things for Benitez, yellow cards for Jack Colback – the 10th of the season for a midfielder who appeared extremely nervous out of position at left back – and Chancel Mbemba – a centre half apparently terrified of Defoe – dictated half his defence needed to really watch their step.
It could have been worse for the Spaniard though. Indeed Defoe would normally have succeeded in turning Khazri’s swerving shot into the net rather than re-directing it wide while Elliot also did well to tip a Jack Rodwell corner over the bar following Khazri’s corner.
The second period began with Townsend whipping in a Newcastle corner from which Ayoze Perez must have momentarily thought he had scored only for Yann M’Vila to rescue the stranded Mannone thanks to a last gasp clearance off the line.
Significantly Perez had previously struggled to make an impact on proceedings while M’Vila’s assured central midfield presence perhaps explained why Jonjo Shelvey, potentially a key Newcastle performer, had struggled to find his passing range.
Not for the first time this season, Elliot was one home player exempt from criticism. When, back in the autumn, Tim Krul ruptured a cruciate ligament many people suspected the Republic of Ireland international would struggle. Instead he has excelled and did particularly brilliantly to divert Patrick van Aanholt’s viciously bending shot following more good work on Khazri’s part.
With just over an hour gone Benitez made his first tactical switch. If Colback’s replacement hardly constituted a surprise, the decision to relocate Sissoko to left-back and thereby facilitate the introduction of Siem de Jong in an attacking role represented creative thinking.
Almost imperceptibly Newcastle had discovered their edge. If Allardyce’s increasing expletive use, ever more manic gum chewing and expansive body language was a barometer of his side’s struggles to escape their own half, Sunderland still retained their precious lead.
Or at least they did until Gini Wijnaldum, deployed in an unusually deep central midfield role alongside Shelvey, dodged Dame N’Doye and chipped a delicate cross in the direction of Mitrovic. The Serbia striker may not have had the best of games but he relishes stellar crosses and showed his gratitude by guiding a header beyond Manonne. All that remained was for Mitrovic to whip off his shirt and celebrate with a pitch invading fan.
As the decibel level reached ear splitting intensity, Mitrovic challenged for another header but this time he collapsed in the wake of a collision with Lamine Kone. With Benitez’s staff suspecting the centre half had elbowed their man, a minor altercation between the benches ensued as Mitrovic seemed to lose consciousness. He recovered in time to wave away a stretcher before Benitez, listening to medical advice, had to forcibly restrain him from rejoining the play.