By Matt Scott at St James' Park
Manchester City returned to form at Newcastle United on Saturday afternoon after their derby-day disaster, despite lacking their inspirational captain Vincent Kompany. The Belgian was not missed too keenly, however, as Joe Hart and Yaya Toure stepped forward to lead the champions to a win that keeps their title hopes very much alive.
A 3-1 win for City might mask just how tight an affair it was at St James’ Park, with Hart called into action several times across the game.
The England No.1 kept the scores at 0-0 in just the second minute as Papiss Cisse turned Kolo Toure and flashed a low shot towards the bottom corner, only to see Hart plunge to his right and claw the ball away.
It was a stunning save that was reminiscent of the Hart of last season, and he topped that later in the period with another stunning stop from Mike Williamson’s volley, recovering his position to keep the defender’s volley out, and keep City in the lead.
He was eventually beaten by Demba Ba’s header, but a clean sheet would have been nothing more than Hart deserved as he recovers from a frustrating start to the season.
He kept just one clean sheet in his first 10 games for club and country this term, against international minnows Moldova, and has been accused of believing his own hype after a highly-successful 2011-12 saw him establish himself as the first-choice between the sticks for City and England.
Hart started at St James’ Park behind the pairing of Matija Nastasic and Kolo Toure, who looked shaky and nervous throughout against the powerful duo of Ba and Papiss Cisse. However, they gained in confidence as the game went on, undoubtedly down to Hart’s superlative shot-stopping - an unshaking confident presence in the face of a barrage of set-pieces that Newcastle sent into Manchester City’s penalty area.
While it was Hart holding things together at the back, Yaya Toure, back at the scene of his finest individual performance last season, was totemic in the centre of midfield.
The Ivorian, like the goalkeeper, has failed to match his overall level of performances from last season, but came to life on Tyneside, where he scored twice in April to send the champions on their way to their historic title win.
The former Barcelona man may have been boosted by being back in the north-east as he delivered a performance of the very highest quality, tackling when required (although it rarely was) and charging forward from the middle of the pitch, dragging the rest of the side with him.
It was Toure’s through-ball that took out Newcastle’s midfield and defence in one to find Samir Nasri and send the Frenchman clear on goal before he gave Sergio Aguero an open goal for the game’s opening strike.
It was Toure's block that gave Javi Garcia the space to run on to David Silva’s corner and head home the third.
And it was Toure’s surging run and determination to get ahead of his defender and prod in the visitors' third goal, that wrapped up the win, as Newcastle were charging forward, creating chance after chance at Hart’s goal, roared on by a vociferous home crowd.
The Ivorian midfielder wore the captain’s armband in Kompany’s enforced absence, and looked every bit a natural leader, as well as the example he set on the ball, the 30-year-old’s vocal presence was key in a squad that has been accused in the past of being distant and cliqued due to the number of different nationalities.
Eight months ago it was two goals that gave City the confidence and assurance to go on and seal the title, today he may just have breathed life into the champions’ flagging defence of their crown.
Kompany’s return to the back line will be vital for Roberto Mancini but, after a morale-boosting winter’s afternoon on the Tyne, he can take solace from the fact that his stars elsewhere on the pitch are finally twinkling again.
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