For long periods of a thrilling, and sometimes tumultuous, 90 minutes on Tyneside, Manchester City seemed to be gasping for oxygen.
The visitors’ periods of distress and sheer puzzlement had nothing to do with any lack of fitness and everything to do with the sheer skill and determination of Allan Saint-Maximin and the rest of a Newcastle team who had evidently bought into Eddie Howe’s mantra that mountains are there for climbing.
Last season Newcastle conceded nine goals to no reply in two games against Pep Guardiola’s side, while Howe’s managerial record against City at both his current club and Bournemouth consisted of 12 straight defeats.
Although a Newcastle side who, at one stage, led 3-1 did not win that losing sequence ended at the 13th attempt as Howe and his players passed what he had described as “the ultimate test” of their recent progress on an afternoon which served as a reminder that, particularly, defensively Guardiola’s team are mortal after all.
At 4.30pm both teams were still to concede a league goal this season but by 4.35pm, Newcastle’s goalkeeper, Nick Pope had picked the ball out of the back of his net. Bernardo Silva was allowed to direct an in swinging right wing cross in Ilkay Gündogan’s direction and, after drifting into the space between Kieran Trippier and Fabian Schär, Gündogan had sufficient time to control the ball before lashing it beyond Pope.
With Pope saving smartly from Kevin De Bruyne in the wake of Joe Willock’s forfeiture of midfield possession and Howe’s brightest midfielder, Bruno Guimarães required to watch his step after collecting a booking for clattering into De Bruyne, Newcastle were suddenly, albeit briefly, up against it.
Creditably, such adversity seemed to bring the best out in them and, despite Pope’s legs once again coming to the rescue to deny Phil Foden, Howe’s players began giving Guardiola’s defence cause for serious consternation whenever they counter-attacked.
Newcastle should have been level when Saint-Maximin cued up Miguel Almirón but, not for the first time, the unmarked Paraguayan miscued, wasting a glorious opportunity from 12 yards out.
Almirón though has been playing extremely well this season and it was not long before he capitalised on a concession of possession from the recalled John Stones and slipped a fine pass to Saint-Maximin which prefaced Ederson diving acrobatically to keep the Frenchman’s ensuing shot out.
City’s spotless defensive record appeared under acute strain and, in the 29th minute, it was blemished when Saint-Maximin cross was met by Almirón who used a thigh to nudge it past the goalkeeper. Although the equaliser was initially ruled out for an offside, a VAR review rightly overruled that decision.
The subsequent outpouring of joy from the majority of the 52,000 full house was informed partly by a sense of justice having been finally dispensed in the wake of Jack Grealish’s somewhat classless comments about Almirón as City celebrated their title win last spring.
In teasing Riyad Mahrez by claiming the City winger had, at one point, been “playing like Almiron” the England midfielder incensed Newcastle’s players and there was a suspicion that Grealish’s absence – officially due to injury – might have been diplomatic. It was certainly easy to appreciate why Guardiola routinely describes St James’ Park as one of England’s “toughest” arenas for away teams.
It is safe to assume Stones will never be tempted to issue the slightest criticism of Saint-Maximin after this, and particularly not in the wake of being tortured by the winger near the halfway line in the preamble to Newcastle’s second goal.
Callum Wilson proved the beneficiary of the subsequent through pass and, having taken one, absolutely fabulous, touch to dodge Rúben Dias, Howe’s centre forward evaded Ederson’s reach with his second. Despatched with the outside of his right foot, it was an imperious finish and added credence to the argument that, Harry Kane apart, there are few, if any, better English No 9s.
Strikers rarely come more formidable than Norway’s Erling Haaland but the new focal point of Guardiola’s attack was, for long periods, kept surprisingly quiet by Sven Botman and Schär.
Despite Haaland escaping their attentions at the outset of the second period when Pope was required to tip his shot onto a post before watching it ricochet to safety, and the game remaining entertainingly open, Newcastle repeatedly had City on the ropes.
Guardiola was left literally scratching his head after Trippier sent an out-swinging free kick arcing over the visiting wall and curving imperiously into the top corner to put the home side 3-1 up.
The moment had arrived for Haaland to remind everyone what all the fuss was about and he did not disappoint. When De Bruyne’s cross eluded Howe’s rearguard Rodri was able to flick it on for the Norwegian to volley unerringly beyond Pope.
With the power balance having suddenly shifted Newcastle’s goalkeeper saved well again from Haaland before De Bruyne’s gorgeous, defence confounding reverse pass, was stroked into the bottom corner by Bernardo Silva. Ominously for Howe, De Bruyne had begun doing an impression of brilliant sunshine emerging from a bank of cloud.
The sight of the Belgian illuminating a midfield in which Joelinton had earlier shone, lured Trippier into a rash, high, tackle which resulted in his catching De Bruyne on the knee. Howe looked suitably relieved as, after the referee Jarred Gillett, had issued a straight red card, a VAR review overturned it, returning a verdict of “no serious foul play” followed by a downgrade to a yellow card.
Things continued in similarly kaleidoscopic, and by now borderline chaotic, vein until the final whistle brought the curtain down on what will surely come to be seen as a classic.