Enter Kevin de Bruyne. To a match Newcastle were winning, and to a title race where Manchester City threatened to slip off the pace. He had not played in the Premier League for five months. Within five minutes there was his belated first goal of the season, and within another 17 a pass to permit Oscar Bobb to score an injury-time winner, complete the second turnaround of a stunning game and put City a mere two points behind Liverpool. No wonder Pep Guardiola says there are few in the world with his ability to win games. This one was being lost without him, won with him. The theory that City will be better in the second half of the season has long been based around the Belgian but it was an illustration of how and why, of the class that can elevate him above even outstanding players.
His cameo amounted to a three-point turn on the road, for De Bruyne and City: surely their best away result in the division this season – even while an eighth defeat in 10 games leaves Newcastle in an unflattering 10th position – and a test passed in a classic of visceral excitement.
It was played at a breathless pace but the goals were of rare quality, bookended by wondrous moments from City, sandwiching a swift and devastating fightback from Newcastle. De Bruyne instead applied the final blow to their slender chances of returning to the Champions League. They can reflect they looked like beating the Club World Cup winners. They threatened to harry City into defeat but, still shorn of nine injured players, Eddie Howe lacked options on the bench, let alone any as enviable as sending for De Bruyne. In the end, it was a second substitute, in Bobb, who turned match-winner, but the catalyst was the vice-captain.
Newcastle had exposed some frailty in Guardiola’s ranks. It was not merely the quickfire goals by Alexander Isak and Anthony Gordon that hinted at defensive troubles. But the City manager had a trump card to play. He sent on De Bruyne so his first touch was to shoot from a free kick. There was no such immediate impact – it hit the wall – but he soon found the net anyway.
City’s vice-captain got an assist 17 minutes into his comeback last week. A goal came still quicker in his first top-flight outing since August. He accepted Rodri’s pass, strode forward and sidefooted a shot in from 20 yards. Then came his piece de resistance, a lovely pass chipped and curled over the Newcastle defence. Bobb met it with a soft-shoe shuffle to deceive Kieran Trippier – blameless this time, after some recent troubles – and coolly beat Martin Dubravka. As at Anfield 12 days earlier, the back-up goalkeeper had made a host of saves and still ended up beaten.
Newcastle’s record against City now stands, ridiculously, at just eight points from the last 99 available. And yet there was an evenness to this before the champions eventually pulled away. Newcastle began at speed, City exerted their authority and then United hit them with a swift one-two. City’s pressure told eventually in the second half as Bobb delivered his first Premier League goal.
A disallowed strike at the start had significance, Ederson being hurt in a vain attempt to stop Sean Longstaff from finding the net, though it did not count. Instead, City were the first on the board.
Never a great goalscorer, Bernardo Silva can sometimes be a scorer of great goals. His opener was delicate and exquisite, making it look enviously easy to meet a cross Kyle Walker fizzed in with a backheel flick. There was almost a second spectacular goal, Silva connecting sweetly with a rising half-volley from the edge of the box and Dubravka excelling to tip it onto the bar.
Yet Newcastle responded with a raw aggression that threatened to rip City apart. City’s high defensive line was exposed by Newcastle’s electric attack. Miguel Almiron was a livewire on the right, Gordon a pest on the left, Isak a combination of physique and technique.
There was a fifth goal in four games for the Swede, taken in beautiful fashion. Bruno Guimaraes curved a pass over the City defence, Isak jinked inside and curled a shot into the far corner. If Jeremy Doku was the man initially at fault there, with Fabian Schar showing rather more appetite for a tackle, Ruben Dias gave the ball away for the second. Dan Burn sent Gordon steaming clear and he showed similar precision to bend a shot past the substitute goalkeeper Stefan Ortega. Walker arguably did not get close enough to either scorer.
But City had persistence, mettle and, ultimately, De Bruyne’s sure touch. Dubravka made a hat-trick of fine saves, denying Alvarez twice, and thwarting Rodri when he tried to sidestep his way through and shoot. Alvarez and the excellent Phil Foden fired over. So Guardiola needed someone else. Enter De Bruyne and he proved the decider.