For long stretches of thrilling and at times tumultuous 90 minutes on Tyneside, Manchester City seemed out of breath.
The visitors’ spells of distress and sheer bewilderment had nothing to do with a lack of fitness and everything to do with the skill and aggression of Allan Saint-Maximin and the rest of a Newcastle team that had obviously bought into Eddie Howe’s mantra that the mountains are there for the climbing.
With Saint-Maximin at his electrifying and unplayable best, Howe’s 12-game losing streak against City finally came to an end as he and his improving players passed what he described as “the ultimate test” of their recent progress.
Long before the end of a contest which served as a reminder that defensively, in particular, Pep Guardiola’s champions are mortal after all, the Newcastle manager must have been very relieved to have resisted a brief temptation to sell Saint-Maximin sometimes demanding.
At 4:30 p.m. both sides had yet to concede their first league goals of the season, but at 4:35 p.m. the ball nestled deep in Nick Pope’s net. Bernardo Silva was allowed to head a cross from the right wing in the direction of Ilkay Gündogan and, after drifting into space between Kieran Trippier and Fabian Schär, Gündogan had enough time to control the ball before whipping it beyond Pope.
With the impressive Pope saving smartly from Kevin De Bruyne following the confiscation of midfield possession by Joe Willock and the influential Bruno Guimarães forced to watch his steps after receiving a booking for De Bruyne’s rattling, Newcastle were, albeit briefly, against him.
Credibly, such adversity seemed to imbue them with a new ferocity of attack and, despite Pope’s legs again coming to the rescue to deny Phil Foden, their counterattack gave Guardiola’s defense a serious consternation. City’s impeccable defensive record appeared under acute strain, and in the 28th minute it was blemished when Miguel Almirón used a thigh to push Saint-Maximin’s cross past Ederson. Although the equalizer was initially ruled out for offside, a VAR review overturned that decision.
The ensuing outpouring of joy from the majority of the 52,000 sell-out crowd was influenced in part by a sense of justice having finally been served following Jack Grealish’s cruelly classless comments about Paraguay’s supposed shortcomings as City celebrated winning the title last spring.
The England midfielder’s words infuriated Newcastle players and it was suspected that Grealish’s absence – officially due to injury – on Saturday could have been diplomatic. Watching from a distance, Grealish will have noted that, unless a keeper was missing, Almirón played extremely well, combining superbly with Saint-Maximin.
It’s safe to assume that John Stones will never be tempted to cast any criticism of the latter after this, and especially not after he was tortured by the French winger near the halfway line in the run-up to the second goal from Newcastle.
Callum Wilson proved the beneficiary of the ensuing through pass and, after taking a fabulous touch to dodge Rúben Dias, Howe’s centre-forward escaped Ederson’s reach with his second. Sent off with the outside of his right foot, it was an imperious finish and, scored past England manager Gareth Southgate, added credence to the argument that apart from Harry Kane there is no better Englishman No. 9.
Attackers are rarely more formidable than Norway’s Erling Haaland, but Guardiola’s new focal point of attack has been kept in check for long stretches by Sven Botman and Schär. Indeed, although Haaland escaped their attentions by falling deep when Pope had to tip his shot over a post, Newcastle had City on the ropes for some time.
Guardiola literally scratched his head after Trippier sent a free kick out over the visitors’ wall and curling imperiously into the top corner to put the home side 3-1 up.
It was time for Haaland to remind everyone what it was all about and, unerringly picking up Rodri’s film from De Bruyne’s center beyond Pope, he didn’t disappoint.
As the balance of power shifted imperceptibly and the game became more open than ever, the Newcastle goalkeeper again saved well from Haaland before De Bruyne’s superb reverse pass, disconcerting for the defence, was struck in the bottom corner by Bernardo Silva. Ominously to Howe, De Bruyne’s growing impact was like a bright sun emerging from a cloud bank.
The sight of the Belgian illuminating a midfield Joelinton had shone in earlier, rushed Trippier catching De Bruyne in the knee with a high, reckless tackle. Howe looked suitably relieved when Jarred Gillett’s initial red card turned yellow after a VAR review. Things continued in a similar kaleidoscopic, sometimes chaotic vein until the final whistle finally stopped what will surely be considered a 21st century classic.