Cats Eye View: Sunderland are Championship-bound unless they start killing off teams
Sam Allardyce had a beaming smile on his face when he arrived at St James's Park to the wall of noise that Rafa Benitez had called for.
As the Sunderland team coach pulled up, thousands of Newcastle fans lined the road to ‘welcome’ their rivals.
For some managers that would have been an intimidating atmosphere.
Not so for Big Sam. Mind, managers don’t come much more experienced than him.
The former Newcastle boss was almost revelling in it, enjoying it even, as he made his way up the stairs alongside his coaching staff.
This game had been dubbed the biggest Tyne-Wear derby in a generation – the £100million derby – given the riches on offer next season thanks to the £5billion television deal.
And just to crank the pressure up a further notch, victory for fellow strugglers Norwich City had seen Sunderland drop back into the bottom three.
Allardyce showed no signs of nerves though and when the game kicked off, neither did his players.
St James’s Park was rocking, with 52,000 fans – including 3,000 Sunderland supporters – creating a superb and intimidating atmosphere.
Behind the dugouts there were Spanish flags being waved ahead of Benitez’s arrival in the home dugout for the first time.
His introduction was rather understated, a small wave to acknowledge the crowd.
After their 1-0 defeat to Leicester City, Benitez was in desperate need of a result but the Magpies were poor first half, with Sunderland dominating the play.
Yann M’Vila, Jack Rodwell and Jan Kirchhoff all excelled, with strength and energy in abundance.
Kirchhoff again won the man of the match award. His mantle piece will be groaning under the strain such has been his impact.
Has there ever been £750,000 better spent? His horror debut aside, the former Bayern Munich man has been excellent in the holding midfield role.
Dispossessing the likes of Georginio Wijnaldum and Ayoze Perez with ease – both were anonymous first half.
It also showed that you don’t need to spend £30million to improve your midfield.
Newcastle did just that in January bringing in Jonjo Shelvey, who was quiet, Henri Saivet, on the bench and Andros Townsend, who was the home side’s biggest threat.
Perhaps they need to tweak their scouting system as Kirchhoff proves there are bargains to be had, while Allardyce’s wealth of contacts cannot be underestimated.
Jermain Defoe led the line well, twice going close before finally hitting the net at the third time of asking with a volley.
Sunderland deserved their half-time lead. No doubt. They were the better side and had created the clearer chances.
The second half followed a similar pattern for the opening 15 minutes before the visitors began to sit deeper, and deeper and deeper.
They had to wear snorkels at one stage they were in so deep. It was almost as if the Gallowgate End was sucking the Sunderland defence towards them.
Ultimately, they couldn’t withstand the growing pressure and credit to goal-shy Newcastle for finding a way back into the match.
Allardyce had got his team selection and tactics spot on initially, frustrating the home faithful whose angst visibly grew as the game wore on until Aleksandar Mitrovic’s late header.
It was the substitutions that left Sunderland fans scratching their heads. He had no choice but to bring off Younes Kaboul through injury, while Kirchhoff was dead on his feet.
But the decision to bring on Dame N’Doye backfired, with the striker failing to prevent Wijnaldum from crossing for Newcastle’s equaliser.
Perhaps Jeremain Lens would have been a better bet, but Allardyce was clearly looking to use N’Doye’s height as an attacking outlet.
That might have worked had it not been for his inability to hold up the ball.
It wasn’t just N’Doye’s fault, though he did little to help. The pressure had been building for the best part of half an hour.
Allardyce arrived with a smile, he left with a furrowed brow.
Frustration etched on his face after seeing his side blow a lead for the third consecutive match.
With just eight games remaining, they cannot afford any more slips.