Miles Starforth's match analysis: Newcastle United 0 Manchester City 1
Newcastle United weren’t embarrassed by Manchester City.
And Rafa Benitez’s side were in the game until the final whistle.
It wasn’t the humiliation many were expecting.
Had Newcastle, beaten 1-0 last night, tried to play City at their own game, they would have been picked off by this season’s outstanding team.
TV pundit and former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher had labelled Benitez’s first-half tactic as “embarrassing”.
On a bitterly cold night at St James’s Park, they spent much of the game in their own half.
In the end, only a goal from Raheem Sterling separated the two sides.
In reality, the two sides are separated by several hundred million pounds.
This was, more or less, the United team that won the Championship.
And they were up against the team few doubt will be crowd Premier League champions this season.
Man for man, there was no comparison.
Yet this game was decided by one goal, one moment.
There was no place in Benitez’s starting XI, or even on his bench, for Henri Saivet, who has scored a stunning 30-yard free-kick in the weekend’s 3-2 win over West Ham.
Christian Atsu, another of Saturday’s goalscorers, was also left out of the team.
Benitez, possibly mindful of Saturday’s home game against Brighton and Hove Albion and the New Years’s Day fixture against Stoke City, dropped Atsu down to the bench.
In came Rolando Aarons, Paul Dummett, Jacob Murphy, Jonjo Shelvey and Chancel Mbemba.
Aarons has hardly played since scoring in a League Cup win over City just over three years ago.
However, this was a very different City side.
Benitez sent his team out with five at the back, and Newcastle had to defend deep, and in numbers, in the early stages.
The visitors – who lost Vincent Kompany to injury in the 11th minute – controlled the ball.
Sergio Aguero struck the base of the post with one shot, while Rob Elliot denied Sergio Aguero with a superb one-handed save.
City, with almost 90% of possession, came back again and again.
Most of the first half was played inside Newcastle’s half, and the pressure finally told in the 31st minute, when a ball into the box from Kevin De Bruyne found Sterling, whose shot went under Elliot.
Did United, so defensive up to then, have a plan B now they needed a goal?
Minutes after the goal, Aarons had a chipped shot headed off the line by Nicolas Otamendi under a challenge from Joselu.
Had Benitez been too negative?
Newcastle weren’t so deep after the break, though City prodded and probed away, and De Bruyne shot wide after playing a one-two with Gabriel Jesus.
United, somehow, were still in the game, and Dwight Gayle soon replaced Joselu up front.
Gayle was booked for a dive in the box late in the game.
Christian Atsu came on for Aarons, and Newcastle rallied in the final minutes.
They found space on the counter-attack and created a series of half-chances in the last 15 minutes.
City – whose possession had dipped to 78% by the final whistle – held out and claimed all three points.
Yes, they should have won by more.
But no, this wasn’t an embarrassment.
Benitez, as he has often said, has what he has.
City manager Pep Guardiola said: “He knows the players and what they can do.”