A fortnight after Steve McClaren passed the point of no return, Newcastle United took a step back from the brink.
Until Aleksandar Mitrovic’s dramatic late intervention yesterday, the outlook was bleak for the club.
They had been outplayed by Sunderland at St James’s Park. Again.
But Mitrovic’s 83rd-minute goal changed things, if only a little.
It would have been hard to see Newcastle coming back this season from a seventh successive derby defeat.
And maybe, just maybe, Mitrovic’s header – United drew 1-1 – could prove to be the pivotal moment in United’s season.
The striker has had a tough first campaign on Tyneside.
It’s been bruising and brutal.
But Mitrovic showed that he was still up for the fight after being laid out in the minutes after the goal, which came from a superb right-wing cross from Georginio Wijnaldum.
Chances have been few and far between for Mitrovic – and his team-mates – over the past few months.
And it looked like it would prove to be another frustrating afternoon for the 21-year-old.
Sunderland were anything but cautious in their approach to the biggest derby since the 1990 play-off game.
They sensed Newcastle were there for the taking, and they deserved the 1-0 lead they took into the break.
Newcastle had their moments, but they were fleeting. Andros Townsend threatened with his pace, and created problems in the box, but Moussa Sissoko again lacked a final ball on the other flank.
Sissoko ended the game at left-back after the withdrawal of Jack Colback, who will miss the next two matches through suspension after picking up his 10th booking of the season.
Benitez’s side were far too predictable, and Sunderland’s centre-halves, Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone, were able to deal with the aimless long balls that came their way.
In front of them, Jan Kirchhoff kept things simple in midfield.
And there was an inevitability after Jermain Defoe’s 44th-minute opener.
It had been coming.
Defoe, no stranger to scoring against United, had been getting closer and closer.
Goalkeeper Rob Elliot – who made a superb second-half save to from Patrick van Aanholt – got a hand to a shot from the edge of the box from Fabio Borini.
The ball wasn’t cleared, and Defoe threaded it through a crowded box and into the net.
There had been chances at the other end, but Newcastle lacked conviction. They weren’t convincing in the final third of the pitch.
Benitez opted against a half-time change, and Yann M’Vila stopped a shot from Ayoze Perez, a bundle of energy all game, on the line early in the second half.
But Sunderland, for the most part, were comfortable.
They knew their jobs and they kept their shape, and it wasn’t until the last 20 minutes that United, roused by their fans, rallied.
Minutes after his goal – wildly celebrated inside St James’s Park by all bar Sunderland’s 3,000-strong travelling support – Mitrovic was laid out by a clash of heads with Kone.
A stretcher was taken on to the field, but it wasn’t needed.
Mitrovic, despite being visibly wobbly, picked himself and attempted to play on.
Club doctor Paul Catterson, following Premier League protocol for concussion, wouldn’t let him back on to the field, and Benitez had to usher Mitrovic back towards the dugout.
And Newcastle had to see out most of injury time with 10 men, with Benitez having already made three substitutions.
It was a game United had seemingly had to win, but above all else, they couldn’t lose it.
It’s a start, if nothing else.
Newcastle, under Benitez, have drawn a line in the sand.
The result suited Norwich City, who had beaten West Bromwich Albion 1-0 a day earlier to climb out of the relegation zone and into 17th place.
Second-bottom United are three points behind them ahead of the April 2 meeting between the two sides at Carrow Road.
In the meantime, Benitez can at least do more work with those players who aren’t on international duty, among them Papiss Cisse, who made his comeback from injury in the second half.
That fixture is followed by another away game – they go to Southampton on April 9 – and the odds, according to the bookmakers, are still on a return to the Championship.
But Benitez and Mitrovic have given the club some hope in what had looked to be a hopeless situation.
Newcastle would have lost this game had McClaren still been in charge.
A 3-1 home defeat to Bournemouth earlier this month spelled the end for McClaren after a troubled nine months at St James’s Park.
Benitez inherited a mess, and it will take time to untangle it.
Time, however, is fast running out.
Sunderland came close to landing a knockout blow at St James’s Park.
As it was, it was only Mitrovic who got knocked out.
And he – and United – live to fight another day.