As the 148th edition of the Tyne-Wear Derby, Newcastle's trip to Sunderland on Sunday was always going to be a prickly dish. This one rarely disappointed, and after a tetchy (and at times really tasty) 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light, both squads found themselves sitting precisely where they started the day.
In the middle of the table and unlikely to do anything to change it.
For Sunderland that amounts to an adequate return from the opening seven matches. Eight points and only one defeat are so far more than enough to keep Martin O'Neill's men out of the relegation zone, and not coincidentally, the Black Cats must be the slightly more satisfied of the two sides (though Alan Pardew's post-match fist-pumping might suggest otherwise).
For Newcastle, though, it's an opportunity lost. Victory would have meant a return to the top half and, after last week's humiliation at the hands of Manchester United, a possible kick-start to what so far has been a disappointing campaign.
And while the Magpies have now gone six matches unbeaten against their Wearside rivals (a run that admittedly includes four draws), Sunday's fast start could have turned into so much more.
O’Neill had called for pre-match calm between these ancient antagonists (per Daily Mirror), but any early-match settling-in period was ruled out after only three minutes as Newcastle's Yohann Cabaye put the visitors ahead.
The match throbbed and pulsed and threatened to bubble over from there, but in the end a Demba Ba own goal leveled the scores and sent the rivals home equal. They didn't, however, spend the 90 minutes on equal terms.
Newcastle's Cheick Tiote saw to that. The 26-year-old Ivorian, so often prized for his combativeness in the midfield, let his aggression best him in the 25th minute. With Newcastle still leading 1-0, Tiote went over the ball to tackle Sunderland's Steven Fletcher and drew a red card for what referee Martin Atkinson deemed a reckless, dangerous challenge.
The decision might have been the slightest bit harsh, and Fletcher might have milked the contact to its last drop, but in such a heated derby, Tiote simply should have known better.
One of the reasons why Newcastle will not get £15m for Tiote is what he has just done and keeps on doing.— John Brewin (@JohnBrewinESPN) October 21, 2012
The last league meeting between these teams featured two red cards, both for Sunderland. And the last four league meetings had produced four red cards, again all Sunderland.
Tiote made it five in five, but—vitally in this game—the first in that run for Newcastle.
Sunderland had not come into the game at all until then, and though it took exactly an hour for the Black Cats to capitalize and equalize, Newcastle might have been able to run away with the match otherwise.
The hosts started threatening before the break. Adam Johnson curled a shot wide of the top corner before Craig Gardner blasted a long-rage free kick inches past the post. Newcastle might have produced the best chance, though, as Demba Ba shot over with an overhead kick he set up for himself.
As the second half wore on and tensions grew sharper, a late miss by Louis Saha seemed set to doom Sunderland to a second defeat of the season. But John O'Shea rose highest to meet Sebastian Larsson's free kick in the 85th minute, and Ba helplessly headed the ball into his own net.
It was a fitting reward for Sunderland and, in a fixture as fiercely contested as this one, it produced the fair result.