With Cheik Tioté and Moussa Sissoko back to their best Newcastle United not only hinted at what might have been had Rafael Benítez’s appointment come a little sooner but also highlighted Manchester City’s slapdash tendencies.
At the final whistle it felt like two points lost for a Newcastle team who at least confirmed that if they are to be relegated they will go down with all guns blazing but, significantly, Benítez’s players are in touching distance of Sunderland and Norwich, one and two points behind respectively.
If that pair have reason to be nervous Real Madrid – City’s Champions League semi-final opponents next week – should be quietly confident. As exceptional as Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Agüero are, Manchester United, too, have cause for cautious optimism that Manuel Pellegrini’s sublime yet at times sloppy side may yet be leapfrogged in the quest for a Champions League place.
It might have been worse for City had Georgino Wijnaldum, newly off the home bench, polished off a late chance to win a thoroughly compelling game that Benítez’s side had seemed likely to lose once Agüero’s 100th Premier League goal put them behind.
With Sissoko, Tioté and Andros Townsend to the fore, Newcastle battled as a, for once, truly united team, Vurnon Anita scored an unlikely equaliser, and Benítez’s team selection was again vindicated.
The Spaniard has always liked to rotate and sure enough, he was at it again here. Refreshingly, Steve McClaren’s successor had no compunction about leaving the best part of £45m on his bench either in the shape of Wijnaldum, Jonjo Shelvey, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Henri Saivet.
That quartet watched their side very nearly enjoy an ideal start when Townsend advanced down the right and deceived Aleksandar Kolarov with a lovely slice of skill before crossing invitingly for the on-rushing Papiss Cissé. The striker made a decent connection but his header skimmed the bar, landing on the roof of the net.
Yet for all their encouraging commitment, Newcastle were initially up against it, looking vulnerable every time the excellent De Bruyne took possession. City’s then seemingly inevitable breakthrough came from a free-kick awarded for Townsend’s foul on Kolarov. The otherwise disappointing left-back delivered an incisive dead ball and Newcastle offered Agüero a free header. Barely believing his luck the striker – a good yard offside – registered his 22nd goal of the league season.
It should never have stood but it was still incredible to think only City have spent more on players than Newcastle this season. The St James’ investment has been bereft of balance, however, with Benítez having inherited such a mixed bag he was forced to field Anita, a midfielder, out of position at right-back.
Jamaal Lascelles’s inexperience at this level showed when the centre half – who nonetheless possesses real promise – attempted to play the ball out from the back and instead passed straight to De Bruyne, whose shot proved uncharacteristically wayward.
Suitably reprieved, Newcastle began waking up to City’s fallibilities. Vincent Kompany, back from injury, was not exactly on top form for City, while Fabian Delph and friends had few answers to Sissoko’s surges and power. Deployed in his preferred central-attacking role and again named as captain, the France midfielder, like Tioté, shone. After one of his interceptions – featuring the pickpocketing of Kolarov – Sissoko charged 50 yards only to spare Joe Hart by shooting too early.
Appropriately Sissoko helped inspire the resounding choruses of Blaydon Races that greeted Anita’s leveller. He had not scored for more than two years but when Sissoko drifted to the left and cleverly switched play by lifting a crossfield pass to the right, the scene was set for the Dutchman to become the hero. Accepting the ball, Anita proceeded to dodge Kolarov before cutting inside, transferring possession on to his supposedly weaker left foot and unleashing a low shot through a tangle of legs and in off the inside of the far post.
With Delph and Kolarov weak City links, Newcastle could glimpse tantalisingly possibility. Fulfilling it depended on retaining the new-found shape and organisation Benítez has drilled into them – they were playing like a side starting to believe salvation really is possible.
Such optimism remained extremely fragile. Agüero saw a penalty appeal against Chancel Mbemba turned down (almost certainly correctly) after being very smartly played in by De Bruyne and Karl Darlow was required to make a superb save to keep out Jesús Navas’s curving shot.
Despite City’s considerable attacking menace Darlow had actually been surprisingly underemployed. If Hart was hardly hyperactive either the England goalkeeper must still have been mightily relieved to see Pablo Zabaleta make a superb clearance from Townsend’s cross just as Mitrovic, on as a substitute, seemed likely to apply his forehead to it.
Wijnaldum’s failure to keep his head cost Newcastle victory. After Kolarov fluffed a clearance, a shooting chance materialised but neglecting to keep his cool, he shot straight at a grateful Hart.