In my relationship with Newcastle United I keep getting drawn back to that famous line from Charles Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." I know it's tripe, but I'm not very smart and I'm extremely lazy. Also, it usually applies. Today was no different.
Newcastle United came into this match needing a result. The safety net (if you want to consider that we even have one of those) in the relegation battle is getting smaller and smaller. You wouldn't have been able to tell it from the initial efforts provided by our black and white heroes. While the Wear representatives in the derby looked well up for it, Newcastle showed every little bit of why they are where they are in the table. Aside from an Ayoze Perez shot that was cleared off of the line by Yann M'Villa there was very little encouraging in the first half from the home side.
The book had been written on how to beat Newcastle United several years ago. Pressure them on the ball. Earn free kicks. Profit. Sunderland did all that. Add in that they took full advantage of Jack Colback at left back (Fabio Borini, in addition to actually being better than Colback in every way on the day was getting the best of him theatrically as well and would have eventually seen the former Sunderland man off had Rafa not yanked him) it wasn't any surprise to anyone that they eventually found the breakthrough as the first half was coming to a close.
Yet again – stop me if you've heard this one – a free kick was not well dealt with by Newcastle's defense and after careening around a bit the ball fell to Jermain Defoe who made no mistake and sent the unwashed into rapturous celebration as based on the evidence of the first half to that point, 7 in a row looked completely on the cards. Then the second half happened.
Kind of. Not that it was any different. Newcastle still looked nervous. The pressure on the ball kept up. Ultimately, it came to a point that we were playing two CMs at the fullback positions with Colback having been hauled off to avoid an early shower (and the fact that he was abject today to put it nicely) and Daryl Janmaat coming off injured. Plans were well and truly being made for a challenging season in the Championship. Then Rafa started Rafa-ing. The introduction of Siem de Jong had some scratching their heads... but he brought composure and direction to a floundering squad. Many were writing off Aleksandar Mitrovic in spite of Rafa's midweek vote of confidence, but Rafa left him on. Moving Moussa Sissoko to left back when they took Colback off seemed laughable. Then... something happened.
The last 10 minutes we swarmed them. We largely dominated the match. Finally. And it all payed off as Gini Wijnaldum put in a perfect cross to Mitrovic. Mitro hit a perfect header across the face of the goal and between two players on the goal line. And all hell broke loose. It was a point more than we deserved in truth. In the end, however, it was a beautiful point earned. It stopped the derby losing streak. It kept both of our most direct relegation rivals within one match of us. And more than anything, it proved to both the players and the fans that maybe... just maybe... Rafa Benitez, unlike John Carver before him, just might be Harry Houdini.