In a Florentino Pérez-less world Newcastle United manager Rafael Benítez will have been preparing this month to lead Real Madrid into a Champions League semi-final against Manchester City. Benítez may have traded the Plaza Mayor for Eldon Square, patatas bravas for Pan Haggerty and the Bernabéu for St James’ Park, but the 53,000 capacity stadium served up an atmosphere that may have reminded him of his short time at one of Europe’s most powerful clubs on Tuesday night.
I’d have taken a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu, but not at the Sports Direct Arena where Newcastle have put on an irritating advert for scruffy football and poor customer service this season. The fact we’ve come back with the three points on our last five visits to Tyneside made this result even more difficult to stomach, even if Vinny says it “wasn’t a bad point.” Sergio’s 14th minute header – his 100th Premier League goal – cancelled out by a fine finish from Vurnon Anita, was perhaps the only positive, alongside another commanding display from Eliaquim Mangala, to take from this grim performance.
Pellegrini blamed fatigue and team selection for the clumsy showing, admitting after the game that “I didn’t see the energy that we had on Saturday. It was too much repeating just three days after the Chelsea game. At the end of the season it’s not easy for the players to recover 100 per cent. The team was also different as we made some changes that’s why it wasn’t the same as the previous game.”
Kompany returned from his latest calf injury to partner Mangala in the centre of defence, while Pablo Zabaleta, Aleksandar Kolarov, Fabian Delph and Yaya Touré were also handed starts. The returnees gave One Direction a run for their money in being the worst fivesome I’ve ever seen play in an arena (not live, before you rinse me), hitting flat notes all over the field. I’ll give Vinny the benefit of the doubt, but Zaba’s best days are galloping past him faster than Pedro and Ayoze Pérez. As for Kolarov, I’m not sure whether he’s ever seen his ‘best days’, I just know that this was one of his worst.
Both full-backs disappointed, but I feel our flawed midfield played a bigger role in this stinker. Delph, playing on the left where he, by no fault of his own, genuinely offers nothing, was a 60th minute substitute even before the game had kicked off. Touré, on the other hand, has charmed and then disenchanted us all like a doughnut with a soft centre of dog shit and this was another of his listless performances where Moussa Sissoko and Cheick Tioté, players that have been castigated by their own supporters this term, took advantage of his waning legs. It has been reported that the club are growing increasingly tired of the antics of his gobshite agent Dimitri Seluk, but Touré’s future in Manchester will depend on his own performances from now until the end of the season. Right now, it looks like he’ll be off.
Without Samir Nasri who missed out with a muscle injury, ball retention became an impossible task for us in the first half against a side fighting for their lives. It’s become obvious in our last three league games – two excellent wins in which Nasri has starred and the one yesterday that he was absent from – how much we’ve missed him this season. Clumsiness in possession allowed the hosts to rampage towards Hart’s goal and Papiss Cissé saw a header sail over the bar in the opening minutes.
But Agüero made no mistake with his own, nodding us into the lead to become the second fastest Premier League centurion behind Alan Shearer. He was only about 13 miles offside, too. That’s an exceptional achievement for a foreign player who has played for only one club in England’s top flight. The consistency Agüero shows from season to season is simply tremendous, especially given the amount of injuries he picks up. It is understood that Sergio penned a new deal with the club just before Christmas, but the one-year extension is yet to be announced and there’s very little pointing to exactly why that hasn’t happened yet. Although I feel there’s very little danger of him leaving before his deal expires, the club must #fighttiltheend to keep him at the Etihad Stadium.