“Step by step, we will get our best condition. To start with 10 points from 12 is a good start for us and I am so satisfied.”
Vintage City were not on show at the Etihad as Pep Guardiola’s men ground out a hard-fought 2-1 victory over the Magpies.
With the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea continuing to maintain an ironclad grip on their unbeaten starts by claiming the all-important three points in their early ties, the onus was on the Sky Blues to rise to the occasion and so they did.
Four matches into the campaign, a recurring theme which has caught the eye is Guardiola’s penchant for tinkering with a series of tactical as well as squad selections. The Catalan took a leaf out of the book of English football at its very core by lining his side up in a more direct 4-4-2 system, with Vincent Kompany, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva making way for John Stones, Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus.
Despite dispelling media murmurs about a reported rift with Leroy Sane behind the scenes, the German’s alarming exclusion (after not starting the first three matches) from the matchday squad by Guardiola has raised eyebrows among the City faithful who had tipped the former Schalke sensation to be fired up ahead of controversially missing the bus to Russia this summer. The 2017 PFA Young Player of the Year has progressed leaps and bounds under the treble-winning coach’s stewardship and with rumors racking up regarding him not pulling his weight in training this season, not all is a bed of roses between the duo.
The Citizens put Newcastle on the backfoot from the outset with Fernandinho carving out a clever pass for Riyad Mahrez in the 3rd minute who wasted no time in cutting inside to his favored left peg to slash the ball wide.
Sergio Aguero instantly made his presence felt during the initial stages as he was on the tails of the Newcastle backline, pressing relentlessly and forcing the likes of DeAndre Yedlin and Jamaal Lascelles into errors. With 14 goals in his last 10 clashes against the Toon, no other player has scored more against a single opposition and therefore, it was expected to see the Argentine as riled up as ever in this particular outing.
The Magpies skipper Lascelles sloppily surrendered possession with a cavalier clearance in the final third for Benjamin Mendy to grab his 4th assist of the season as he laid the ball into Raheem Sterling’s path who rippled the Newcastle net with a ferocious strike to give City the lead in the 8th minute. The England international continues to feed off undeserved media scrutiny as no other player apart from Harry Kane (45) and Mohamed Salah (35) has had a hand in more goals in the Premier League since August 2017(31-20 goals, 11 assists).
City continued to dominate proceedings, however, Mendy’s sensational supply line that has been central to Guardiola’s plans was surprisingly subdued as Kenedy and Mohamed Diame doubled up on the Frenchman. Benitez’s tactical tweak was doing wonders as the former Monaco left-back had delivered one cross in the entire first-half as opposed to 7 against fellow relegation fodder Huddersfield Town.
David Silva and Raheem Sterling had struck an intricate chord down the left flank with Yedlin struggling to cope with their swift one-twos. However, Newcastle’s five-man defence were set up resolutely by Benitez who has structured his teams superbly till this point despite a distressing lack of financial support from owner Mike Ashley in the transfer market and a nightmarish fixture list, facing Tottenham, Chelsea, and City in succession.
In the 15th minute, Fernandinho and Aguero exchanged passes for the latter to send shivers down Newcastle’s spine with a cracking long-range effort. The Sky Blues were struggling to split the Magpies defence who had snuffed their high-flying full-back duo of Walker and Mendy with a stifled Mahrez failing to leave his imprint during his early days as a City player.
Another man who was not up to scratch was Gabriel Jesus who missed two gilt-edged chances to put the hosts into the driving seat by scuffing his shot after darting past Dummett and Fernandez brilliantly in the 17th minute and mistiming a header from a terrific Silva freekick soon after.
While the Toon set up two banks of five to stop City in their tracks and the likes of Laporte and Stones, in particular, were commanding against the physical presence of Solomon Rondon up top, there was an air of uneasiness at the Etihad as their side were underwhelming on an attacking front and would rue their chances if they carried on their lack of ruthlessness in front of goal.
As fate would have it, a probing pass from Rondon was met by Yedlin after an exceptional lung-bursting dash to finish beyond Ederson and level the scores in the 30th minute. Jesus simply could not match the former Spurs defender’s afterburners as Newcastle scored from their first attempt and the 25-year old redeemed himself after his late own-goal against Chelsea. As Mendy was caught on the edge of the box and a striker was tracking back to halt Yedlin, City’s two-man midfield were perhaps too high up the field to recover their positions and were in serious need of defensive solidity in the centre of the park.
The first-half finished one apiece and Rafael Benitez was certainly the more chuffed of the two bosses.
Guardiola and Co. kickstarted the second half with a spring in their step with Mahrez showcasing why his boss lauded him as “one of the most technically gifted players” he has ever worked with. He left Dummett and Clark for dead after a series of sumptuous feints and managed to deliver a dangerous cross.
In matches that are on a knife edge, a certain moment of magic is paramount to showcase that one side is a cut above its competition and Walker did just that for the hosts with a glorious 30-yard piledriver in the 52nd minute to score what is already a potential contender for “goal of the season” so early into the campaign. The all-action defender scored his first goal in a City shirt in unforgettable fashion and it is tough to dispute Kieran Trippier’s claim of “Walks” being the best right-back in the world.
Gareth Southgate would be a happy man seeing two of City’s English contingent emerging as the difference makers on the dawn of the Euro Nations League.
The Sky Blues gained a sensational stronghold over possession with 83% of the ball at their feet, leaving the Toon to chase shadows.
Walker and Sterling grew into confidence and began to torment Dummett and Yedlin by leaving the Newcastle Full-Backs for dead on more than one occasion.
Guardiola introduced Bernardo Silva for the out of sorts Mahrez and City started to function in their usual 4-3-3 formation to cement their lead and gain more control in midfield.
The Portuguese took no time to settle as he came on and immediately struck a brilliant outside the boot pass to Aguero, who picked out Fernandinho superbly for the Brazilian’s close-range attempt to be saved by Martin Dubravka, who also managed to save David Silva’s rebound effort. It was truly one of the best pieces of shot-stopping this season.
While City were not at their virtuosic best, they stood tall to a defensive Newcastle side to seal a 2-1 win and march on towards their title defence. As the footballing cliché suggests, winning ugly is a true sign of champions and the Sky Blues managed to gain an essential win before the international break despite not playing the most fluid of football at times.
Our Man of the match- Raheem Sterling.
Images via Evening Standard
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