Newcastle’s Matt Ritchie on the spot to dent Manchester City’s title hopes

Rafael Benítez succeeded in pulling off the rare feat of making two sets of supporters extremely happy.

Not content with choreographing a win which eases his side’s relegation worries, Newcastle’s manager significantly enhanced the chances of the former club still closest to his heart beating Manchester City to the title.

Should Liverpool defeat Leicester at Anfield on Wednesday night they will go seven points clear of Pep Guardiola’s team, who may have kicked off with a swagger in their step but departed Tyneside staring at the floor.

Few would have guessed the final score correctly after 24 seconds. Raheem Sterling has been setting agendas on and off the pitch of late and, straight from the kick-off, he was at it again, advancing down the right before sending a deep cross looping towards the far post.

With Benítez’s back five looking merely half awake, Martin Dubravka was left unprotected and came off his line. His advance failed to prevent David Silva challenging – rather bravely or, perhaps, foolishly – for a header and, almost inevitably, the pair collided leaving Newcastle’s goalkeeper to miss the ball completely. Unluckily for Dubravka it fell for Sergio Agüero to lash into the empty net from around six yards.

Sergio Agüero puts Manchester City ahead after 24 seconds.

Sergio Agüero puts Manchester City ahead after just 24 seconds. Photograph: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

City had scored their 29th goal in seven games and as a familiar refrain rose from the Gallowgate End it felt a case of plus ça change. “We want Mike Ashley out,” demanded home fans. “We want Ashley out.”

Not for the first time, the anger directed towards Newcastle’s owner offered confirmation that political tensions are not confined to Westminster. More than 280 miles north a febrile civil war has been raging between Benítez and Ashley.

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By hinting that no signings by 11pm might prompt him to walk out, Benítez forced the sports retail tycoon into a corner and Ashley finally extended an olive branch. Where transfer activity had been dormant, St James’ Park suddenly turned into a hive of activity with the Paraguay attacking midfielder Miguel Almirón on the verge of becoming a record signing and the Greece defensive midfielder Andreas Samaris and the Italian full-back Antonio Barreca discussing loan moves.

Only time will tell if such recruits might mollify Benítez sufficiently to persuade him to extend his contract beyond May but the immediate future at least seems a little more certain.

Unstable to start with, Newcastle’s defence acquired sturdiness as the game unravelled. Even so, they were fortunate not to fall further behind when Matt Ritchie conceded a free-kick following a foul on Sterling. That dead ball was whipped in brilliantly, and swiftly, by Kevin De Bruyne before Agüero redirected it into the roof of the net. The only problem was De Bruyne had not waited for the whistle and the “goal” was disallowed.

Far from impressed, City clearly felt this represented painful pedantry on the part of referee, Paul Tierney, with their dismay only intensifying when De Bruyne was booked for his quick thinking.

Manchester City’s players voice their displeasure to Paul Tierney after he chalked off their goal and booked Kevin De Bruyne.

Manchester City’s players voice their displeasure to Paul Tierney after he chalked off their goal and booked Kevin De Bruyne. Photograph: Greig Cowie/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

Conscious they had been reprieved, Newcastle regrouped and even gave their guests an odd counterattacking fright, most notably when Christian Atsu’s 20-yard shot took a hefty deflection off John Stones and swerved marginally off target.

By now the temperature was plunging and a thin frost seemed to have permeating City’s brains, inhibiting customary invention and incision. At times, Guardiola’s players looked distinctly mortal.

Yet although Dubravka was surprisingly underemployed, City remained loosely in control and Newcastle’s Fabian Schär made two vital interceptions; namely a splendidly timed tackle that prevented the lively Agüero from scoring and then a clearance off the line which diverted David Silva’s header to safety after City’s captain had displayed a wonderful change of pace before playing a one-two with Danilo.

Schär’s interventions had the added effect of ensuring Guardiola could not relax. City’s manager looked perpetually on edge whenever Atsu’s counterattacking pace highlighted his side’s defensive vulnerabilities.

Actually exploiting them was something entirely different though. If Almirón had been on the pitch in the No 10 role it might have been different but, in his absence, improvisation was hardly an injury-hit Newcastle’s strong suit. Neither were killer final balls.

Benítez’s players did possess plenty of sheer bloody-minded determination and it paid dividends when Fernandinho only partially cleared a Ritchie cross and Isaac Hayden headed it back into the box. City had made the mistake of leaving Salomón Rondón unmarked and, having narrowly avoided colliding with Atsu, he drove a right-foot shot into the turf which bounced up over a nonplussed Ederson and on towards the roof of the net. Guardiola and co appealed for offside but their pleas seemed forlorn.

Tellingly that equaliser came very shortly after De Bruyne had been diplomatically withdrawn in the wake of a challenge on Ritchie arguably worthy of a second yellow card.

No one epitomises Newcastle’s diligence more than Benítez’s right-winger turned left wing-back so it seemed fitting Ritchie scored the winner from the penalty spot following Fernandinho’s foul on Sean Longstaff – and what seemed an eternity of a delay while Ederson had treatment on a groin injury which may, or may not, have been a psychological ploy designed to preserve his side’s title hopes.

If so, it failed, leaving the ball firmly in Liverpool’s court.


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