The unbroken blue sky signified a perfect, superbly crisp, winter’s day but, for Pep Guardiola, it must have seemed anything but ideal. As a jubilant, critic-confounding Jonjo Shelvey celebrated his late Newcastle United equaliser in front of the Manchester City manager’s technical area, Guardiola was left to reflect on two more points dropped in a title race which already seems Liverpool’s to lose.
It was the first time he had faced Steve Bruce in managerial combat but, if his Newcastle counterpart could not quite reprise the victory against City that Rafael Benítez managed here, the home side’s attacking pace emphasised that the Champions are mortal after all.
Low, very low, on possession, Newcastle initially sat back and watched Kevin De Bruyne control midfield during a first half in which City’s dominance was occasionally disrupted by rapid bursts of acceleration from Bruce’s £77m attacking trident, the ever entertaining Allan Saint-Maximin in particular.
There seemed a sense of inevitability about the moment when David Silva and Raheem Sterling combined to scoring effect with the Spaniard’s back-heeled flick finding Sterling unmarked and set to lash the ball into the bottom corner.
It seemed a straightforward afternoon beckoned for Guardiola’s players but their apparent vulnerability to the pace of Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almirón, offered Bruce a kernel of hope. Kyle Walker especially looked distinctly uneasy whenever the former Nice winger accelerated down the home left and Jetro Willems overlapped.
Newcastle’s manager had resisted what had become quite a clamour to rest Almirón and such faith was vindicated when the Paraguay playmaker’s exchange of passes with Willems created an equaliser for the Netherlands left wing-back.
Generous space had opened up in front of Willems and, after taking a steadying touch he evaded Ederson’s reach with a powerfully swerving shot, delivered with his supposedly weaker right foot. Remarkably it was Almirón’s first assist since joining Newcastle for £21m from MLS Atlanta in January. He is still waiting for his first goal in a black and white shirt.
Viewed baldly out of context those are damning statistics but they also fail to tell the whole story. In reality there have been several games in which the unselfish Almirón has switched the lights on for Newcastle and, here, his habit of alternating flanks with Saint-Maximin as they swept Bruce’s side high up the pitch ensured City could never properly relax.
Granted far too many near misses have clearly diminished his reserves of confidence to worryingly low levels and perhaps explain why, when John Stones’s poor defensive header, dropped kindly for him, the South American made a hash of trying to manoeuvre the ball on to his preferred left foot and ended up mis-controlling it completely.
Bruce may simply have been relieved to see De Bruyne’s early influence restricted but when Federico Fernández, somewhat startlingly, galloped out of the heart of the home back three and fed the industrious Joelinton his side might have scored a second. In the wake of Ferandinho’s ungainly challenge on the £40m Brazilian striker, Shelvey stepped forward to take his second dangerously positioned free-kick of the afternoon but, as with the first, the midfielder could not quite make the most of it.
Suitably encouraged, City began sucking Newcastle markers out of position and testing their hosts’ collective powers of concentration. The time had come for Martin Dubravka, hitherto much less involved than might have been expected, to shine in the home goal. The Slovakian did not disappoint, contributing a stunning double save from Gabriel Jesus and De Bruyne before watching the substitute Bernardo Silva subsequently miss something of a sitter.
There was barely a hint of a breeze but by now Newcastle found themselves in the eye of an attacking storm. Their defensive lines were finally breached when De Bruyne intercepted a defensive header, chesting it down imperiously before restoring the visiting lead with an unstoppable volley which flew in off the underside of the bar.
Guardiola’s assumed a look of quiet contentment but it was not destined to last long. When Fernandinho felled Javier Manquillo on the edge of the area Christian Atsu pulled the free-kick back for Shelvey to send a superlative 25-yard shot curving inexorably into the top corner.