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Black Cats' close shave could bring them to life
IT was a Wear-Tyne derby which Sunderland fans feared was heading for a second successive home defeat to Newcastle United. Moving forward, it could be the most important result of the season for the men from the Stadium of Light.
In securing a point four minutes from time courtesy of an own goal from Demba Ba, the blushes of those Sunderland supporters who held red and white cards up before the match were spared.
But supporters, like manager Martin O'Neill, are all too aware that something needs to change, and fast, for the Black Cats.
Despite the arrivals of Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher for an initial £22m in late August, O'Neill is still struggling to find the right blend to get his team ticking in the Premier League.
The prospect of Johnson and James McClean lining the flanks, with Stephane Sessegnon playing behind Steven Fletcher, looks an attractive one. But it could need breaking up to try to spark Sunderland in to life.
With Lee Cattermole back from suspension, David Vaughan and Phil Bardsley fit again to replace Craig Gardner at right-back, O'Neill now has the options in the middle again to free up Seb Larsson as a winger.
There is a justifiable argument to introduce Larsson to the right-flank and think about replacing Sessegnon and McClean after the ineffective starts to the campaign they have made. Striker Louis Saha, who looks sharp, is still waiting for his first start since arriving in mid-August.
Defensively they have looked quite strong, but the over-reliance on Fletcher's goals as a lone striker has to stop and the Newcastle performance highlighted their problems more than ever.
Spanish defender Carlos Cuellar, one of the team's best players so far this season, is optimistic. He said: "People will say we have only won one game in the league, but we have only lost one game too - that was against Manchester City, the champions.
"The look we have is stronger and I just feel the key for us is to create more chances, score more goals. The look and the confidence of the team is fantastic, we are all confident that we will be higher up the table when it matters."
Despite winning just one of their opening seven Premier League matches, a victory at Stoke City this Saturday could do wonders for their league position. They are three points shy of tenth spot.
Similarly, though, they are only four points above the bottom three, but Cuellar is adamant there is plenty of confidence around the squad and, crucially, no fear.
"I don't think that if we had lost the Newcastle game we would have been down for the rest of the season," he said. "Everybody knew it was one of the most important games for us, but the season is long.
"It is good that we got the point though because the atmosphere is still high. We still believe now, that's the main thing.
"We knew that the Newcastle game - as well as the return game - will be the biggest game of the season for us. We are professional and as professionals you have to come back from bad moments when they arrive. I feel we did that. We are prepared for everything."
Cuellar thinks Sunderland's persistence to finally grab an equaliser with four minutes remaining against the Magpies - who had Cheik Tiote red carded for a foul on Steven Fletcher - showed the desire in the squad.
"It was frustrating that the goal didn't come earlier," he said. "Had it come earlier then we could have gone on to win. At least we never gave up though.
"We kept pushing on and trying to get the goal and eventually it arrived. We came back well. We never lost the confidence that it would arrive. It's harder against the ten men sometimes and it was."
* Sunderland fans are advised that the Capital One Cup tie with Middlesbrough a week tonight is all-ticket. The deadline to purchase tickets is 5pm on the day of the game.
Tickets are £15 for adults and £5 for under-16s and over-65s, with Black Cats Bar seats priced at £40 and only supporters who have a purchasing history with Sunderland and are listed on the club's database will be able to purchase tickets.
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