Hope for Newcastle after Anita equaliser
Newcastle 1-1 Man City
There are four games left for Rafael Benitez to save the soul of Newcastle United and, as the end closes in and the safety of 17th place remains tantalisingly out of reach, so it is the case that for this club and this city it will be now or never if they are to stay in the Premier League.
A point against a side in the last four of the Champions League is no bad result, but then there were times last night when Benitez must have thought that with a bit more guile and some more good fortune, his team could have pulled off a famous win. As it is, they remain down with the dead men, one point behind Sunderland and two from 17th-placed Norwich.
There was a moment in the 88th minute when only the outstretched hand of Joe Hart stopped substitute Georginio Wijnaldum from scoring a goal that would have won the game for his team and changed the relegation picture again. But Hart read the shot, kept a strong arm and the chance passed.
Unfortunately for Newcastle, Sunderland have played one game fewer for their 30 points and must be favourite of the two north-east teams to make it out alive. Benitez returns to Anfield on Saturday, a place full of good memories for him where he is assured of a warm welcome, needing a victory as badly as any of those occasions when he was in charge of the home side.
As for City, they had the quality to win this game but they are waxing and waning once more, unable to see off one of the poorest opponents in the league having demolished Chelsea on Saturday. It means that Arsenal's draw with Crystal Palace on Sunday is not quite the catastrophe they thought it was - not with them only a single point behind City in third place.
It would be right to say that St James' Park remains unconvinced of their team's prospects of staying in the Premier League but they come nonetheless to see whether it might change and, as ever, it did not take much for them to show some enthusiasm.
Not that it looked promising at the start with Sergio Aguero's opening goal not unexpected given the pressure that City exerted in the early periods. When it arrived, the Argentinian's 100th career Premier League goal - only Alan Shearer reached the same milestone in fewer games - was offside and should not have stood, but City had started to turn the screw.
Manuel Pellegrini rested Fernandinho and dropped Nicolas Otamendi rather than Eliaquim Mangala to accommodate the newly fit Vincent Kompany. There were times in the first half when his side looked so much better than Newcastle it seemed they could do as they pleased but to their credit the home side hung in there.
Benitez was not happy with the award of the free-kick out on the left which Aleksandar Kolarov dropped onto Aguero's head at the near post for the goal. Aguero was well offside when he glanced the ball beyond Karl Darlow in the Newcastle goal, and the boos could be heard around the stadium.
It could have been worse when Jamaal Lascelles gave the ball to Kevin De Bruyne seven minutes later and the Belgian drove forward from midfield with the Newcastle defence in retreat. Ahead of him, Aguero had to dart back from another offside position and De Bruyne decided to go it alone, missing with a right-footed shot.
Newcastle's only chance had been a header from Papiss Cisse on four minutes when Andros Townsend crossed from the right. The England winger had done his best to get around Kolarov and looked like Newcastle's greatest threat.
Kolarov then gave the ball to Moussa Sissoko in midfield on 28 minutes and his run took him all the way to Hart's area where he ran out of steam and hit a tame shot at the goalkeeper.
It was Sissoko, however, who made the goal, cutting past the erratic Jesus Navas on the left wing and striking the ball across the pitch to Vernon Anita on the right. He took one touch to kill it, another to move it inside, past Kolarov with his right and then dispatched it past Hart with his left into the far corner.
The goal gave Newcastle some stability and it quelled the doubt in the stadium, with the anger turned upon referee Kevin Friend and his assistant Dave Bryan who had missed Aguero's offside position for the goal. Benitez's side improved in the second half and, although they clearly lack the quality in attack, they looked the most likely to score for the opening stages.
As they have on many occasions, City just seemed out of ideas. In place of Fabian Delph, stationed on the left wing, Pellegrini sent on Raheem Sterling for his first appearance since the Manchester derby on March 20. Fernandinho later replaced Yaya Toure, operating in a holding position, and the extra energy started to change the course of the match.
Before then, City had failed to press home their advantage in the way that they have done at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. Aguero went down under pressure from Chancel Mbemba within the first five minutes of the half but referee Friend's decision to wave play on was right.
Before the hour, Benitez brought on Aleksandar Mitrovic for Cisse to give some power to the attack. He was the target for Townsend's back post cross on the hour but Pablo Zabaleta got to the ball just in time. There was a short period when City were under pressure and Kompany was booked for a foul on Sissoko but it passed quickly.
By the end it was City hanging on for a point and Newcastle who had the chances to win the game, not least Wijnaldum who forced that fine save from Hart having turned Kolarov inside out.
Then in the dying moments Benitez was once more frantically reorganising his defence to deal with a cheap free-kick before urging his side forward once again. It is not the kind of crisis he has become accustomed to dealing with in the last 15 years of his career, but for Newcastle it was another game in which they remain in the bottom three.