Saturday 21 April 2018

Newcastle pay penalty as City assert title pedigree

It was the only moment of restraint in another irrepressible Manchester City performance. With half-time approaching the home side won a penalty; Mario Balotelli stuttered in his run-up (well, walk-up) and passed the ball past a frozen Tim Krul in the Newcastle goal. The home support exploded with noise but Balotelli merely crossed his arms, his face a mask.

Having been booked for his 'Why Always Me' celebration after scoring against Manchester United, perhaps this was the Italian's way of protesting against the outrageous restraint of his freedom of expression. This was his eighth goal of the season and it certainly won't be his last -- demure doesn't really suit him.

The fact that he even took the penalty -- ahead of Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri -- showed just how much trust Roberto Mancini is beginning to place in his erratic protege. "Mario is fabulous [at penalties]," Mancini said. "It is impossible that he misses even one. I don't know why it is!"

This was another powerful assertion of City's credentials as title favourites. Not since the Liverpool teams of 1978, 1987 and 1990 have a team started the season so impressively -- 11 wins and a draw.

Newcastle went into this game unbeaten and with the meanest defence in the league but, once they got going, City repeatedly opened it up.

However, aside from a slick turn and shot by Aguero from the edge of the box, which flew over the bar, City did not get a clear sight of Krul's goal for the first half an hour. It was Newcastle, playing with patience, who had the better chances.

Hatem Ben Arfa had his leg broken by Nigel de Jong on this ground early last season but he was far from cowed in his first league start since.

Running diagonally from left to right at the City box, Ben Arfa left Joleon Lescott flat-footed with a superb reverse pass to Demba Ba.

The Newcastle striker's effort was not cleanly struck but it still took a good save from Joe Hart to keep it out. Five minutes later and Ba, unchallenged, headed Yohan Cabaye's corner wide of the far post. They proved regrettable misses.

Gael Clichy had put a dangerous ball into the box and when Steven Taylor failed to clear properly, Yaya Toure hit a volley against Ryan Taylor's outstretched arm. Balotelli did his thing from the spot.

Ryan Taylor has been impressive since converting to left-back this season but, perhaps still rattled by the penalty concession, he was exposed for City's second just three minutes later. Nasri tried to pass in behind him and, instead of clearing, Taylor tried to trap the ball. Micah Richards pounced on him and slammed the ball past Krul with his left foot after it bounced up nicely.

It was no surprise that City came out for the second half with a swagger. Toure was surging forward at every opportunity and then Aguero and Nasri exchanged a brilliant one-two, Aguero hooking the ball over Krul only for Taylor, playing in a protective mask, to make another last-ditch clearance.

On the hour, though, Newcastle had one last golden chance to get back into the game. Vincent Kompany failed to control a simple pass at the back and Ben Arfa was on to it, sprinting to the edge of the box but, on his weaker right foot, he hit the base of the post.

Then the rested David Silva came on and killed Newcastle off. Within two minutes of replacing Balotelli he played a sublime reverse pass that put Richards in ahead of Ben Arfa, who pulled his opponent down. Aguero was more orthodox than Balotelli in his penalty technique but no less effective.

Newcastle did finally manage the goal their performance had promised but only when the game was in its dying moments. Ba headed down to substitute James Perch whose through pass deflected off Lescott. Ba was chasing it down and got there ahead of Hart, who partially blocked. Dan Gosling, another substitute, had only to poke it in.

The quality of this Newcastle side will be uncovered by how they react to this first defeat in their next games against Manchester United and Chelsea. For City it is a crucial Champions League qualifier in Naples on Tuesday.

Aguero had gone down uncomfortably late in the game but Mancini said afterwards that it was nothing serious. That will reassure the City support, for they will need to be at their strongest in Napoli's San Pablo cauldron.


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