Newcastle United 1 Manchester City 1
With Cheik Tioté and Moussa Sissoko back to their imperious best Newcastle United not only hinted at the tanatalisingly possibilities of what might have been had Rafael Benítez only been appointed earlier, but also highlighted Manchester City's slapdash tendencies.
In the end it seemed like two points lost for a Newcastle team who at least confirmed that if they are to be relegated they will go down with all guns blazing but, significantly, Benítez’s players remain in touching distance of Norwich and Sunderland at the bottom.
If that pair are nervous, Real Madrid – City's Champions League semi finals opponents next week – should be quietly confident. As good as Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Agüero are, Manchester United, too, have cause for cautious optimism that Manuel Pellegrini's side can be leap-frogged in the quest for a top-four place.
Benítez has always liked to rotate and, sure enough, he was at it again here. Refreshingly, Steve McClaren's successor had no compunction about leaving the best part of £45 million on the bench in the shape of Gini Wijnaldum – dropped for the first time this season – Jonjo Shelvey, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Henri Saivet.
And Newcastle nearly got off to a perfect start. Andros Townsend advanced down the right and deceived Aleksandar Kolarov with a lovely slice of skill before crossing invitingly for the on-rushing Papiss Cissé. Yet although the Senegal striker made a decent connection his header flew fractionally high, eventually landing on the roof of the net after skimming the bar.
Unfortunately for Benítez it soon became clear that for all their encouraging commitment, his side were seriously up against it. Every time the excellent De Bruyne – who never seems to waste a pass – was in possession, Newcastle looked vulnerable and did well to survive a couple of his early low crosses into the box.
City’s breakthrough came from a free kick awarded for Townsend’s foul on Kolarov. The left back delivered an incisive dead ball but Newcastle could surely have done better than permit Agüero a free header. Barely believing his luck, the striker – who was a yard or two offside – duly registered his 100th Premier League goal for City and the 22nd of the season.
It is incredible to think that only City have spent more than Newcastle this season. The St James' Park investment, though, has been bereft of balance with Benítez having inherited such a rickety squad that he was forced to field Anita, a midfielder, out of position at right back. Meanwhile Paul Dummett, more naturally a centre half, filled the left back berth.
Jamaal Lascelles’s inexperience at this level showed when the centre half – who nonetheless possesses real promise – attempted to play the ball out from the back and instead passed straight to De Bruyne. Geordie hearts were in mouths as the midfielder took aim but the shot proved to be uncharacteristically wayward.
Suitably reprieved, Newcastle appeared to begin waking up to the reality that City were a rather strange amalgam of the sublime and the slapdash. Fabian Delph and friends certainly had few answers to those moments when Moussa Sissoko surged forward with pace and power.
Deployed in his preferred central-attacking midfield role behind Cissé and once again named as captain by Benítez, Sissoko was outstanding. After one of his interceptions – featuring the pick-pocketing of Kolarov – he charged 50 yards with the ball only to shoot too early and allow Joe Hart to make a fairly routine save.
Appropriately Sissoko helped inspire the resounding choruses of Blaydon Races which greeted a slightly unexpected but nonetheless hope-restoring equaliser. Anita had not scored for more than two years but when Sissoko drifted to the left and cleverly switched play by lifting a crossfield pass to the right, the scene was set for the Dutchman to become the hero.
Accepting the ball Anita proceeded to dodge Kolarov – not, it is fair to say, enjoying the best of evenings – before cutting inside, transferring possession on to his supposedly weaker left foot and unleashing a low, angled shot through a tangle of legs which went in off the inside of the far post. It was a tremendous finish but, damningly, none of Pellegrini’s players had even attempted to close down Anita.
With Delph and Kolarov weak City links, Newcastle could glimpse tantalising possibility. Fulfilling it depended on them retaining the new-found shape and organisation Benítez has evidently drilled into them – and the influential Tioté especially – but the Tyneside club played like they are starting to believe.
Such optimism all remained extremely fragile, of course. After all, Agüero saw a penalty appeal against Chancel Mbemba turned down – almost certainly correctly – after being smartly played in by De Bruyne, and Karl Darlow was required to make a superb save to keep Jesús Navas's curving shot out.
Despite City's considerable attacking menace Darlow had been surprisingly under-employed. If Hart was hardly hyperactive either, the England goalkeeper must have been mighty relieved to see Zabaleta make a superb clearance from Townsend's cross just as Mitrovic, on as a substitute, seemed set to get his head to it. If Delph did a little better as the game wore on, Vincent Kompany, back in central defence after injury, did not look his usual assured self.
Raheem Sterling, too, has been in the wars of late but he finally returned to action in place of Delph. By now Newcastle, increasingly held together by Tioté, were pinning their visitors back but on a City counter-attack, Darlow reacted well to save from De Bruyne.
Wijnaldum, though, should have enjoyed the last word, the substitute spurning a late chance to seal a thrilling game by securing three precious points.