A tale of two owners, Newcastle's tactics and a tete-a-tete between Rafa Benitez and Pep Guardiola
So near, yet so far.
Newcastle United were within touching distance of Manchester City for most of Saturday’s game at the Etihad Stadium.
The gulf between the two clubs – on and off the pitch – is huge.
A decade ago, the Abu Dhabi United Group bought City.
The club has been rebuilt, at huge expense, since Sheikh Mansour took over.
City fans have celebrated three Premier League titles, an FA Cup and three League Cups.
More than £1.4billion has been spent on players in that time.
Mike Ashley – who bought Newcastle in 2007 – has been a very different owner.
The team has suffered through under-investment, and St James’s Park, the city’s proud citadel, is showing signs of neglect.
City have been on the up since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover, but there have been more downs than ups for United, relegated twice in the last decade, under Ashley’s ownership.
Yet, for 90 minutes, Newcastle were able to compete with City at the Etihad Stadium.
That was because of Rafa Benitez – and his tactical acumen.
City manager Pep Guardiola paid tribute to Benitez – and his club – before the game, which ended in a 2-1 defeat for United.
“I have always had the utmost respect for his teams,” said Guardiola.
“He’s a tactically versatile coach who thinks deeply about the game.
“Rafa has managed teams in Spain, in Italy and in England with great success in domestic and European knockout competitions, and has shown his methods work.
“Newcastle is one of the biggest clubs in England with a fantastically loyal fanbase, and I know they will make life hard for us this evening.”
Newcastle did make it hard for City, who seized on an early mistake from visiting captain Jamaal Lascelles to take a seventh-minute lead through a Raheem Sterling goal.
Those United fans behind Martin Dubravka’s goal feared the worst, yet Benitez’s side hung on and hung on.
For all City’s possession, they didn’t create many chances.
Newcastle, again with a five-man defence, frustrated the Premier League champions.
And they were level by the break thanks to a goal from DeAndre Yedlin, who had raced upfield to get on the end of a superb ball from Salomon Rondon.
Kyle Walker claimed all three points for City with 30-yard strike in the second half, but they couldn’t add to their advantage.
United were organised and disciplined and they created a handful of chances. They’d made it difficult for Guardiola’s side – and kept Sergio Aguero off the scoresheet.
They were also only beaten by one goal by Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, and would have beaten Cardiff City had Kenedy converted a late penalty.
Newcastle are third-bottom of the Premier League with four games played, but there’s something to build on over the coming weeks and months.
Benitez’s tactics have been criticised this season, but he has the respect of Guardiola.
The pair had a long chat in the mixed zone at the Etihad Stadium as players from both teams filed past.
They talked at length before Benitez took his press conference.
Speaking to reporters, Benitez said: “You have to be optimistic, because the team was doing well in the last four games, three against three of the best teams in England and we were close.”
The challenge for United is to get even closer.