Advantage Manchester City. It always has been, of course – this Premier League title defence has remained within their own hands throughout this run-in – but there have been times over the past few days when you would not have known it.
And if Pep Guardiola’s side needed a reminder that their destiny is in their own control, this emphatic 5-0 win over Newcastle United was it.
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The fear in the immediate aftermath of the extraordinary Champions League semi-final to Real Madrid was that the manner of their stunning exit could derail the rest of the season and potentially leave them trophyless. Instead, City ended the most difficult week of their season in a stronger position in the league table. The champions are now three points clear, which is to say nothing of the goal difference.
Two Raheem Sterling strikes bookended others from Aymeric Laporte, Rodri and Phil Foden in a five-star performance that pushed City past Liverpool on goal difference and goals scored. Guardiola could not have asked for a better response to the events of the Bernabeu. The only note of any real concern was the half time substitution of Ruben Dias, who could be the latest member of his defence to go down through injury.
There is every chance that, one day not too long from now, this fixture could be a title decider in its own right, played between the two best and best-resourced teams in the country. At the moment though, one of these projects for world domination is much further along than the other. Newcastle’s – and Liverpool’s – hopes of any kind of result would rest on taking the few chances which came their way.
Perhaps the afternoon would have taken a very different course if Chris Wood had converted a free header after eight minutes at close range. The £25m January signing – one of Saudi’s first statements of intent – could even have left Allan Saint-Maximin’s cross for Joelinton, who City had also left unmarked at the far post. It was a defensive lapse that deserved punishment but Wood nodded the ball tamely and straight at Ederson.
The space had appeared down Joao Cancelo’s side and the right back’s erratic start did not improve when he blazed over the bar at close range after a quarter-of-an-hour. But Cancelo would show a good deal more composure to set up City’s breakthrough, nodding Ilkay Gundogan’s sublime, lofted pass back across the face of goal for Sterling to connect, convert and ease the air of tension that had gradually built up around the Etihad.
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City were by no means out of the woods yet but Wood’s luck in front of goal would not change. Newcastle briefly believed they had equalised six minutes later when the New Zealand international bundled in a corner, pouncing after a deflection off Bruno Guimaraes, but the flag went up. Guimaraes had been stood offside when Jamaal Lascelles’ header struck him. City were fortunate not to have conceded twice.
Yet even if they had, the champions looked likely to make amends at the other end of the pitch. The second arrived shortly before half time, with Kevin De Bruyne’s half-cleared corner pumped back into the mixer by a Gundogan volley. Martin Dubravka, the Newcastle goalkeeper, spilled the ball and though he reacted well to prevent Dias from a tap-in, he could not stop Laporte from following up emphatically on the rebound.
It was yet another set-piece goal for City – no top-flight side has scored more than their 20 this season – and an important one too. It meant that as well as being set to go three points clear at the top, City would also now be ahead of Liverpool on goal difference. The need for a tiebreaker may seem unrealistic after results swung their way this weekend but this race and this rivalry has often been defined by the fine margins. Those are now in City’s favour.
The third – from another De Bruyne corner – also saw City draw level with Liverpool on goals scored. The 87th of their title defence was flicked in at the near post by Rodri on the hour mark, after he had successfully escaped the attentions of Emil Krafth and Joelinton. That seemed to be the end of the scoring until another two followed in stoppage time, with Foden diverting Oleksandr Zinchenko’s wayward shot in and Jack Grealish’s third league assist of the season setting up Sterling.
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