IT was the highlight of the pre-derby cat and mouse.
In the build-up to his first game against Sunderland at St James’ Park, Alan Pardew asserted the visitors would, of course, play a five-man midfield.
Sixty last Thursday, Martin O’Neill is too long in the tooth to be swayed by mind games.
At half-time yesterday, Pardew must have been wishing his opposite number had done as predicted.
A typically English derby was not quite a slugfest between two 4-4-2s.
While Newcastle United kept Demba Ba close to Senegal strike partner Papiss Cisse, the Black Cats’ formation was a slightly more nuanced 4-4-1-1.
It was a crucial difference.The man in the hole, Stephane Sessegnon, used his freedom to drop deep and join the play at every opportunity.
With no Magpies player man-marking the visitors’ chief threat, Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye were outnumbered and overwhelmed.
Jonas Gutierrez and Ryan Taylor are never afraid of a bit of defensive work, but could not tuck in too much for fear of exposing their full-backs to Sunderland’s dangerous wingers James McClean and Sebastian Larsson. The Wearsiders, therefore, dominated the key battleground.
Tiote seemed intimidated by Lee Cattermole’s lunging 40-second tackle on him, Cabaye as anonymous as in his derby debut in August.
With passes going astray with alarming regularity, Newcastle needed more technical ability.
Danny Guthrie could have tipped the midfield balance, but at half-time Pardew opted instead for the more unpredictable Hatem Ben Arfa to put Sunderland on the back foot.
With six players booked in the first half and numerous arguments on the touchlines, there was always the danger the explosive Ben Arfa would win the race to the bath.
He was one of the few to rein in his petulance.
Ben Arfa’s willingness to run at players from the right wing stretched the game, making it harder for Sunderland to play the energetic pressing game which has become a trademark under O'Neill.
When Simon Mignolet saved Demba Ba’s penalty it looked like the Black Cats might get away with it – only for Shola Ameobi to do what he does best and break Wearside hearts.
Having one less man in midfield cost them after all.