Monthly round-up: football in the region

The North East footballing story of March has been the resurgence of Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle which looks to have all but secured the Magpies’ safety in the Premier League. Middlesbrough have moved into the play-off places and now look to remain there until the final day of the season. Sunderland have continued to struggle, but an away win at Derby may be the kick-start they need in their bid to avoid relegation. Here’s the story of March:

Newcastle’s first game of the month was away to a Liverpool side boasting the forward trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. Newcastle lined up with three centre backs which became a five when wingback’s Yedlin and Kenedy dropped back and they hoped to threaten on the counter attack through the pace of Atsu and Murphy. Liverpool were unusually wasteful until 5 minutes before the interval when Salah was put through by Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Egyptian didn’t miss this time and shortly after half time it was Mane who made sure of the points. It may’ve been a different story had Diame’s shot, destined for the top corner, not been parried away by Loris Karius, just moments before half time. Newcastle returned from Anfield knowing that more important games lay ahead; back to back home games against relegation rivals Southampton and Huddersfield.

Pellegrino’s side arrived at St James’ one point above the bottom three. A fine performance from the Magpies saw them ease to a relatively comfortable 3-0 win. After Kenedy had put them ahead with a wonderful shot on the turn, the result never looked in doubt. Kenedy punished a mistake from Mario Lemina on the edge of the Newcastle box to make it 2, before Matt Ritchie added a third. The result saw Newcastle move up to 13th and go 5 points clear of the relegation zone. Benitez’s side had to wait 21 days before their next game, providing time for a short mid-season training camp in Spain, which concluded with a friendly against Royal Antwerp. The Magpies were able to maintain the momentum they’d built up before the International Break as they edged out Huddersfield by a single goal. Newcastle now sit in 12th with a healthy cushion of 7 points between themselves and the relegation zone.

Middlesbrough have finally shown some much-needed consistency as the Championship¬†promotion race enters its final few months. They started the month with an excellent 3-0 win at home to Leeds thanks to Patrick Bamford’s hat-trick. The following week away at Birmingham City, Bamford was the difference once again, as he turned in Adama Traore’s inswinging delivery, giving Boro a 1-0 victory.¬† It was three wins on the spin, as Boro swept aside a struggling Barnsley side 3-1 at the Riverside. Goals from Daniel Ayala, Adama Traore and Patrick Bamford made sure of the points, before Kieffer Moore pulled one back for Barnsley.

Pulis’ side were asked more questions when they made the trip to fellow play-off rivals Brentford the following weekend. Although Middlesbrough could only manage a 1-1 draw, it left Brentford 8 points off the play-off places, knowing any aspirations of play-off football were effectively over. Adama Traore had given Boro the lead before Lewis Macleod equalised for the home side. The point at Griffin Park stretched Boro’s unbeaten run to 6 games. Boro’s final game of the month saw them host the Championship’s runaway leaders Wolves. Although Boro went into the interval 2-0 down, they ended the game frustrated not to claim a point. Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro put Wolves into a commanding position but second half red cards for Wolves’¬†Ruben Neves and Matt Doherty changed the complexion of the game. Bamford pulled one back for Boro and there was still time for Stewart Downing to fire agonisingly wide in added time as 9-man Wolves held on for all three points.

Sunderland knew that failure to pick up a win in March would all but seal their final fate in May. Away games at Millwall, QPR and Derby either side of home games with Aston Villa and Preston certainly looked tricky on paper. A spirited point against one of the league’s form sides, in Millwall, was at least a good start. Full-back Brian Oviedo had put the Black Cats in front before Shaun Hutchinson equalised. Sunderland welcomed third placed Aston Villa to the Stadium of Light who held promotion ambitions given their expensively assembled squad. There was a sense of irony as ex-Sunderland loanee Lewis Grabban opened the scoring for the away side. A James Chester effort and a Brian Oviedo own goal ensured that Villa returned to the Midlands with a comfortable 3-0 win.

Sunderland’s winless run stretched to 9 games as a drab performance at Loftus Road left them on the wrong side of a 1-0 score line. A moment of madness from Sunderland goalkeeper Jason Steele, who blatantly handled the ball outside his area, gave the referee no choice but to dismiss him and proved to be the turning point in the game. Sunderland had to pick themselves up quickly for the visit of Preston. Ultimately though, they were well short of the standards required and two inexcusable errors at the back saw them 2-0 down and on the end of another lacklustre defeat in front of their own fans.

Sunderland’s final game of March saw them head to a Derby side who were also on a dire run of form having not won in seven games. Sunderland took a 2-1 lead into half time thanks to goals from George Honeyman and Ashley Fletcher. Matej Vydra made it 2-1 just before the break, but Aidan McGeady’s penalty soon after half-time restored Sunderland’s 2-goal advantage. John O’Shea added a fourth from close range to give the travelling fans a rare day of jubilation on the road. The victory lifted Sunderland off the bottom and above Burton, but still leaves them 3 points from safety.

Words: Caspar de Wesselow