Don’t mention the Bernabéu. The traveling Newcastle supporters did so, although it felt as though they might have got away with it. For Manchester City, this was all about trying to move on. The wounds from last Wednesday’s Champions League horror show at Real Madrid, when they surrendered a two-goal aggregate lead in stoppage time before going out, may never entirely heal.
It is about learning to live with them, stepping into a new reality and it is one that Pep Guardiola intends to gild with a fourth Premier League title in five seasons. The competition is the truest measure of a team over the course of a season and, if City could pull it off, again, then how could they feel hollow? Right?
City had caught a break from the Fates on Saturday night when Liverpool were held to a draw by Tottenham at Anfield. It meant that City had the room for one draw in their run-in but nobody at the club wanted anything other than a victory here over a Newcastle team that has been reinvigorated by Eddie Howe.
Inspired by Kevin De Bruyne, they got it. There had been a few nerves at the start but City soon hit their stride, Raheem Sterling scoring the opener and Aymeric Laporte benefitted after a handling error by the Newcastle goalkeeper, Martin Dubravka.
The second half would be a procession. Rodri got the third and, with Jack Grealish prominent, City would enhance their goal difference late on, the substitute Phil Foden and Sterling again getting in on the act.
City’s players had warmed up in No 10 shirts, “Agueroooo”above the numbers – a nod towards the looming 10-year celebration of the most famous moment in the club’s history. But this was about writing a new chapter.
Guardiola had said beforehand that the mood at the club was much better than it had been on Saturday, which was better again than the Friday, although what happened at Anfield was plainly a bigger healer than time. The idea was that Liverpool’s slip would have a liberating effect on City, giving them a needed pocket of breathing space, but what Guardiola’s team had really wanted was an early goal. They got it, although there would be some jitters before that.
Laporte snatched at a presentable opportunity on the volley from a De Bruyne corner and João Cancelo did likewise from a similar position when another cross from the Belgian came to him at the far post. And before that, Newcastle ought to have opened the scoring.
When Allan Saint-Maximin picked up the ball on the right after a quick counter, he had Joelinton in yards of space in the area, so much that it felt incongruous. He could not work the cross. But he would do moments later and Chris Wood was all alone for the header. He directed it wastefully at Ederson.
The City breakthrough came on 19 minutes and it was created by Ilkay Gündogan, whose clipped cross to the far post was made to measure for Cancelo. The full-back headed square and Sterling got there first to nod home.
City came to control the first half, with De Bruyne in the mood to impose himself. He drove with the ball at his feet, leaving black-and-white shirts in his wake, while his passing was the classic mix of fizz and precision.
Newcastle flickered again in the 24th minute when Jamal Lascelles headed a corner goalwards and watched the ball hit Bruno Guimarães, who was offside. Wood rammed the loose ball past Ederson but the flag would go up against Guimarães.
City turned the screw. Sterling beat Matt Targett to usher in Cancelo, who was denied by Dubravka at the near post; De Bruyne picked out Gabriel Jesus, who could not control, and Oleksandr Zinchenko almost connected with Jesus after more prompting from De Bruyne. Jesus would stretch again in first-half stoppage time for a De Bruyne cross but again he could not convert.
City’s second was a disaster for Dubravka. He could not hold a Gundogan volley from the edge of the area after a De Bruyne corner and, although it came to him through a crowd, he had to do better. He almost redeemed himself by clawing the loose ball away from Ruben Dias but it broke to Laporte who had a tap-in.
Two goals up and in control. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, as it turned out. City set the tone for the sleeper hold that they put on the second half by gorging on 99% of the possession in the opening eight minutes.
They made sure of the result on the hour mark when Rodri timed his run towards the near post to flick in De Bruyne’s corner. It was not a goal that the visitors will enjoy watching back. Amid the blocks and screens inside the area, Rodri was allowed to find the space too easily.
Guardiola led the applause for Jesus when he substituted him, urging the crowd to acknowledge the striker, just as he had done in the 33rd minute when Gündogan chased back to crowd out the breaking Saint-Maximin.
Howe introduced Callum Wilson and Kieran Trippier after lengthy injury lay-offs and both looked rusty. Wilson missed a one-on-one with Ederson in the 83rd minute and Trippier was easily beaten by Grealish on the fourth City goal. When Grealish pulled back, Zinchenko’s cross-shot was turned home by Foden.
City saved the best until last. Grealish again made ground up the left and, after he got a lovely flick back from Foden, he ushered in Sterling, who fired home. Two goals after the 90th minute. This time, City could enjoy them.