SUNDERLAND’S face-saving equaliser should blind no-one to the continued problems bedevilling Martin O’Neill’s “work in progress”.
The Black Cats were lucky.
They got out of jail with a late leveller courtesy of Demba Ba’s own goal – despite having had the benefit of playing against 10 men since the 25th minute.
And it’s simply not good enough to muster just two shots on target in a home game – none from open play, by the way – in a game where you hold so much of an advantage for so long.
Especially not when one of those shots comes from an opposition forward – Ba now Sunderland’s second top scorer in the league thanks to that solitary strike.
It would be bad enough to attack so disappointingly in an ordinary game.
But in a derby match, with the crowd willing you on every inch, every second of the way, that failing was compounded 10-fold.
There were no smiles of relief from Sunderland fans as they streamed out of the Stadium of Light early yesterday afternoon, no winces of disbelief that they hadn’t taken all three points – just grim faces, black looks, impotent fury.
And you could understand why – it’s rare for a a team to create so little of genuine note despite having so much possession for so long.
Those fans must surely wonder just what Sunderland have to do to finally dominate a derby in the 21st Century.
The Wearsiders went into the game on the back of a statistic showing no team has had fewer shots on target this season in Europe’s top five divisions than them.
And they were to finish the game no better.
But if there is to be a plus point to the match, it was that a searchlight was shone unerringly on the team’s current Achilles heel – a failure to create.
For manager O’Neill, it must be maddening – he has known the problem, virtually since taking over the club, and added a £10million England winger and a £12m powerful, prolific striker over the summer to complement the attacking threat James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon posed last season.
But so far: nada.
Nothing of note from McClean, Sessegnon and Johnson in league action.
And the excuses for the creative trio’s failure to create, even by the manager’s own admission, are wearing thin.
Rapidly approaching is the time to decide whether to persevere a moment longer or whether to explore other options.
Should Louis Saha start? Should Seb Larsson return to the right wing?
Certainly the imminent returns of Lee Cattermole and Phil Bardsley will be a help.
But what is no longer escapable is the conclusion that however good the game-plan looks on paper, it’s not working out on the pitch.
Yesterday, Sunderland could have hardly asked for better backing – 45,000 passionate Mackems roaring their team out of the tunnel for the game they most wanted to see their team excel in.
But Newcastle started with greater urgency – Hatem Ben Arfa panicking a nervy Danny Rose into an early mistake from which United took a third minute lead.
The Frenchman fed Ba down the right and his powerful shot from a narrow angle was parried at the near post by Simon Mignolet, but only as far as Yohan Cabaye, who swept the loose ball into the far corner of goal.
It was poor play from Sunderland; excellent work from Newcastle, and as an example of how to quell a passionate crowd it could hardly have been bettered.
But, as O’Neill had pointed out after Manchester City took a similarly early lead in Sunderland’s previous game, such concessions should not necessarily prove fatal – and the home team still had 87 minutes to wrest the advantage.
In the minutes that followed, Sunderland reacted well enough but – in what was to become the pattern of the match – possession never translated into meaningful penetration for the home team.
It took until the quarter-hour for Sunderland to genuinely threaten.
And although Seb Larsson’s free-kick from the left produced the only save Tim Krul was required to make in the game, it was a relatively easy one for the Dutchman, who dived low at his near post.
A kick in Shola Ameobi’s chest from Larsson in the 20th minute gave Cabaye a chance of a long-range free-kick which he arrowed just beneath the crossbar, but Mignolet watched it well and tipped it over the bar.
Midway through the first half and Sunderland fans saw their side’s lack of real goalscoring threat and showed their displeasure when a forward move ended with Cuellar passing back to Mignolet.
The crowd were given a tremendous boost, though, in the 25th minute when Cheick Tiote was sent off for a rash lunge on Steven Fletcher after he was being pulled back by Jack Colback.
Opinion was divided initially over whether referee Martin Atkinson had been too rash in showing the red card, but replays showed clearly that it was a genuinely dangerous challenge – the Newcastle midfielder’s studs slicing into Fletcher’s shinpad in a challenge that was both high and late.
For Sunderland, the decision was the equivalent of being handed a golden ticket and there was a tremendous roar from the resurgent home crowd as the African headed down the tunnel and player resumed.
Sunderland, though, struggled to capitalise.
Johnson clipped an unconvincing effort wide of the frame in the 32nd minute and a couple of minutes later Gardner dragged a fierce, grass-cutter of a free-kick from the right just wide of the far post.
But that only prompted Alan Pardew to substitute striker Ameobi for defender James Perch and Newcastle comfortably saw out the remainder of the half, with Ba somewhat unlucky not to double his side’s lead in the 43rd minute with an overhead kick which just cleared Mignolet’s crossbar.
Sunderland needed to be better in the second half and they were – threatening as early as the 47th minute when Fletcher headed a half-chance from a Larsson cross wide.
Ba replied with a deflected shot a minute later which Mignolet was alert to as it looped towards him, but Sunderland retained the upper hand up until the hour mark.
The problem was that they were static in possession, unambitious in attack and subdued on the wings where they should have shone the most.
Jack Colback was maligned by some for not being creative enough, but the young Tynesider was incredibly industrious throughout, only to find that each time he had the ball, no-one was making runs for him to hit.
Players seemed to be watching each other to make a move, especially Johnson and it was at this moment you felt the loss of the suspended Cattermole as a driving force.
Sunderland needed a player like their absent skipper to act as a central focus and drive the team on.
Once the hour passed, Sunderland supporters had to endure the sound of rival fans celebrating raucously their opponents’ toothlessness and it was at this point that Sessegnon was replaced by Saha.
The change seemed to improve Sunderland, especially when Larsson dropped to right-back to allow the fired-up Gardner to move into midfield and try several fizzing efforts on goal that were blocked wide.
But they still produced nothing to test Krul, though Saha fired an effort into the side netting, and the home support was beginning to lose all hope when Sunderland found a fortuitous equaliser in the 85th minute.
Centre-half Mike Williamson’s crunching foul on Saha halted a threatening Sunderland break, gave the defender a booking and Larsson the chance to drive a free-kick into the danger zone from the right wing.
The Swede put the ball towards the penalty spot where John O’Shea’s glanced header was going out and wide, only for it to smack into the face of Ba, a couple of yards away from the defender, and go in the opposite direction, back across the hapless Krul and into the net.
The Stadium of Light exploded in a cacophony of noise, of sheer relief seldom experienced at the ground as Wearside enjoyed the unlikeliest of comebacks; the luckiest of levellers.
There was even the hope of an even more unlikely winner, but Saha’s shot was blocked and McClean’s follow-up was inches wide.
A winner, though, would have been cruel on Newcastle and undeserved by Sunderland.
The Wearsiders had worked hard, but it was all perspiration rather than inspiration
At the final whistle, Sunderland would have the consolation of escaping humiliation, but surely not the necessary inquest which must follow another unimpressive attacking display.