Looking every bit the imperious side determined to overturn a four-point deficit to table-topping Liverpool, reigning champions Manchester City set out to make it nine wins on the trot Saturday when they face Newcastle United in what could be a feral atmosphere against the home side at St James’ Park.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Citizens (18-2-3) have been on a rampage that kicked into a higher gear since their must-win over Liverpool on Jan. 3 that cut the deficit between the sides to four points. City have racked up 33 goals in all competitions during this blistering run and have recorded six consecutive clean sheets, not conceding since Roberto Firmino scored for Liverpool 566 minutes ago.
Pep Guardiola’s team went about their business in cup play over the past week, finishing off their two-legged Carabao Cup semifinal tie with League One side Burton Albion with a 1-0 road victory that advanced them 10-0 on aggregate. City will try to repeat as League Cup champions next month at Wembley versus Chelsea.
On Saturday, they were again ruthless in the FA Cup, sweeping aside Burnley 5-0 at home with four second-half goals. City have rung up 12 goals in reaching the fifth round as Gabriel Jesus, Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero all found the back of the net around an own goal from the Clarets.
The re-emergence of De Bruyne, who has been sidelined for two spells this season with a knee injury, has been a key to City finding an extra gear offensively. The Belgium international has two goals and two assists in his last six matches in all competitions, and his goal just after the hour versus Burnley was his 10th from outside the penalty area in all competitions dating back to last season.
“It’s not easy when players have long injuries,” Guardiola said of De Bruyne. “That’s why we tried to handle his minutes. (Saturday) was like we know how Kevin is. He is so clever, he’s so aggressive in his game, and that is why he helps us a lot.”
De Bruyne’s return was another step closer to Guardiola fielding his ideal starting XI, something that also moved forward in Wednesday’s win at Burton Albion as left back Benjamin Mendy had a 27-minute runout for his first action in 10 weeks since suffering a knee injury. Guardiola has used Fabian Delph, Danilo and Oleksandr Zinchenko at that position, and it is uncertain how much more match fitness the France international needs before returning to the first XI.
Newcastle United (5-6-12) are in the throes of the relegation scrap as they enter this match two points above the drop. While rumours come and go about potential signings before the January window closes Thursday, the lack of movement by owner Mike Ashley to open the purse strings continues to roil a supporter base that is losing patience in accelerating fashion.
While it would never be said directly, manager Rafa Benitez’s decision not to call Salomon Rondon off the bench for the final half-hour in Saturday’s 2-0 FA Cup home loss to Watford essentially served as a capitulation for the cup run and provided Newcastle the dubious distinction of being the only current Premier League squad not to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup since Ashley bought the team in 2007.
The removal of Matt Ritchie in the 72nd minute down 1-0 prompted boos from the Toon Army, who then showed their displeasure by going to the exits when Benitez opted to introduce centre back Fabian Schar over Rondon 10 minutes from time. And this came against a Hornets side that overturned their entire starting 11 from the one that drew Burnley in their last league match.
Benitez defended his decision over squad selection for this match, with his top priority keeping Newcastle in the top flight and feeling he could not have a full-strength squad run parallel tracks in league and cup play.
“The fans, they know, so it’s not that I have to explain every time the situation,” the Spaniard told Chronicle Live post-match in what appeared to be a veiled shot at Ashley. “We put a team on the pitch that could win, we didn’t do it and that proved that we have to just concentrate on one competition.”
While Benitez sits and stews over the lack of funds that could bring in reinforcements, the other issue is his contract expires at the end of the season. With Benitez and Ashley at loggerheads regarding that contract – Benitez is hesitant to sign a long-term deal if Ashley won’t spend money, and Ashley won’t spend money unless Benitez commits to such a contract – the Spaniard would barely be out of work long before another Premier League team comes calling should he want to stay in England.
With the disparity in scoring talent, Benitez will again set out to limit the damage against a Big Six side, which starts with a five-man backline and Rondon up front by his lonesome. Newcastle United have failed to take a point from their previous eight such matches, but after losing each of the first five by one goal, the Magpies have shipped eight in defeats to Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea with just one in reply.
City ground out a 2-1 win in the reverse fixture, with Kyle Walker’s goal from 30 yards on 52 minutes separating the sides. Raheem Sterling had staked the defending champions to a lead in the eighth minute before DeAndre Yedlin pulled Newcastle level with an impressive finish off a Rondon cross on the half-hour.
The Citizens have won three on the trot over Newcastle and are unbeaten in the last six meetings (5-1-0) in all competitions. Manchester City also are unbeaten in their last 11 league visits to St James’ Park (9-2-0) since a 1-0 loss in 2005 on a goal by Michael Owen – still Newcastle’s record transfer signing.
Per Bet365, City are 1/5 favourites to continue their winning ways and heap more misery on Newcastle, who are 12/1 underdogs to finally break through and beat a Big Six side this term. There are 11/2 odds on the clubs splitting the points.
Given the Citizens’ goal-scoring binge, it is no surprise oddsmakers are offering 1/2 odds to clear 2.5 goals in the match compared to a 13/8 offering to finish under that mark. There are 4/6 odds of at least one clean sheet in the match, while 11/10 for both teams scoring like they did in the first encounter.
Even playing on the road, City’s imperious form has created a parade of first-goal scoring options on their side. The list starts with Aguero at 9/4, followed by Gabriel Jesus (3/1). The trio of wingers — Leroy Sane, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling — are 9/2 options while De Bruyne and David Silva are further back at 15/2. Among other potential starters, Bernardo Silva checks in at 9/1. For Newcastle, Rondon and Joselu are both 16/1 longshots to give the hosts a 1-0 advantage, with Perez a step back at 18/1.
Aguero and Jesus are the only City attackers who are better than even money to score at 1/2 and 4/6, respectively. Sane, Mahrez and Sterling are all 11/10 picks to bag a goal during the 90 minutes, with De Bruyne and David Silva are 2/1 selections. Rondon and Joselu are joint-leaders for the Magpies at 9/2, with Perez on their heels at 5/1.
As a stateside observer, there is a difficulty in drawing a parallel to the Toon Army now that the Chicago Cubs have won a World Series title in recent years. One could liken them to the fan base of the National Football League’s New York Jets, whose supporters have been beaten down since Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory in Super Bowl III (Note: this year’s edition between New England and Los Angeles marks the 50th anniversary of that game, and the Jets have failed to return to the Super Bowl in that span).
Full disclaimer — I am one of those Jets fans.
That said, I have spent most of his EPL season wondering when the patience of the Toon Army will finally be exhausted to a point of no return. This match has the perfect atmosphere for it to hit a nadir/breaking point/something awful and horrible given Newcastle are coming off a listless loss to Watford in the FA Cup and now playing a City side operating at full throttle and raining down goals on opponents.
There is empathy for Benitez, but even if the Magpies avoid the drop — and there are no guarantees it will happen — the Spaniard has positioned himself where he can simply walk away with no regrets for his efforts and move on, likely to some other mid-table side with potential as a “sleeping giant” who can punch above their weight class (why hello, Leicester City!).
This match will be a testimonial of frustration for the home side. Newcastle is all but certain to have five at the back and Manchester City is all but certain to have at least 70 percent possession.
Either early or eventually, Manchester City will score.
If it happens early, the floodgates could open and Newcastle conceivably could get pounded for five goals. If it happens eventually — defined here as the 60th minute or later — there is a likelihood of a “respectable” scoreline of 0-2 and 0-3. Benitez has accomplished his goal of limiting the damage, he wrings his hands for the last 48 hours of the transfer window without a favourable outcome, and he then spends the last 14 matches figuring out how to scrape to 17th place and above.
Watching City play with De Bruyne is like the scene in “Return of the Jedi” when Emperor Palpatine tells Luke Skywalker, “I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive.” It’s awesome and it’s frightening because right now, there is no answer in how to repel them.
Yes, the scorelines have been flattering based on the level of competition in cup play — which is not intended to slight Burton Albion and Rotherham United — but Saturday’s pillar to post pole-axing of Burnley looks more like an omen for opponents. Guardiola has not shied away from the four-prong title track of winning everything, and given the form of his side, he has every reason to embrace the challenge.
This match will be another step in that process for City, who just appear to be collecting energy for one of the most crucial Februaries in club history.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 0, Manchester City 4.