Typically the moment when predictions are made and reputations are staked, the tortuous few days before the start of a new Premier League season can do funny things to the mind.
Manchester City players and staff could be forgiven for harbouring a rising sense of indignation as they witnessed legions of journalists and pundits confidently predict that Chelsea and even Arsenal would finish above them in the Premier League title race this season. Whether a result of the Blues’ more eye-catching summer recruitment or the Gunners’ impressive 3-0 Community Shield win over depleted opponents last weekend, the reigning champions of England were far too readily dismissed. Sunday at St James’ Park provided the first opportunity for a response.
That City’s performance in victory was unconvincing only made the statement of intent more emphatic. There were infrequent flashes of the devastating attacking football which yielded 102 goals last season – the flowing team move, culminating in a brilliant improvised Edin Dzeko back heel, which led to David Silva’s clinical opener on 38 minutes was a genuine delight – but for the most part Manuel Pellegrini’s men were disjointed and vulnerable.
Yaya Toure was far below last season’s rampaging best, Stevan Jovetic could not continue his pre-season heroics and Gael Clichy looked predictably uncomfortable at right-back. Newcastle, inspired by marquee summer signing Remy Cabella, roared on by a typically vociferous home support, prodded and probed and never lost faith. Moussa Sissoko and Ayoze Perez both wasted good chances to affect the outcome in a tense second half.
Yet on a weekend when many of the pretenders to their throne only narrowly overcame inferior opposition, City emerged unscathed from probably the toughest assignment of the lot. Newcastle lost just three times at St James’ Park last season before the January sale of Yohan Cabaye wrecked their campaign and look reinvigorated by a summer of smart recruitment. On this evidence they will trouble many of the Premier League’s finest on home turf, but on this occasion Alan Pardew’s men found themselves undone by opponents who never troubled their top gear.
City rode their luck at times in the second half but had enough about them to prevent a Newcastle rally becoming a siege late on, and Sergio Aguero’s goalscoring cameo provided further evidence of their obscene squad depth. Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna, Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, Fernandinho, James Milner and £31.8 million signing Eliaquim Mangala did not even feature at St James’ Park. On the pitch and off it, the champions have much more to give.
After a scrappy opening weekend, applying the age-old concept of ‘winning ugly’ being the mark of champions brings us no closer to knowing who will lift the Premier League trophy next May. Manchester United were humbled by Swansea City, Liverpool were pushed hard by a team they ravaged in the summer and only a late Aaron Ramsey goal gave Arsenal victory against a club in the throes of managerial crisis. None of the contenders have hit the ground running, though Jose Mourinho’s formidable-looking Chelsea have a chance to buck that trend against Burnley on Monday.
It is the Blues who many believe will be the ones to snatch away City’s crown, having added the exceptional creativity of Cesc Fabregas and predatory instincts of Diego Costa to what was the meanest defence in the Premier League last season. They certainly look far more complete now, but the truth is that the team they are chasing were already there.
With the arrivals of Mangala, Fernando, Sagna and Willy Caballero, this rather understated summer at the Etihad Stadium was merely about filling in scattered and minor gaps in a stellar squad.
City’s quality remains close to unrivalled and the nature of Sunday’s win suggests they have lost little of the hunger which drove them to glory last season. They carry themselves like champions and will take some beating.