Far from its best, Manchester City still has the mark of a champion

Manuel Pellegrini's men never shined while beating Newcastle 2-0 at St. James' Park, but they still emerged with three points.
Typically the moment when predictions are made and reputations are staked, the tortuous few days before the start of a new Premier League season can do funny things to the mind.

Manchester City players and staff could be forgiven for harboring a rising sense of indignation as they witnessed legions of journalists and pundits confidently predict that Chelsea and even Arsenal would finish above them in the Premier League title race this season. Whether a result of the Blues' more eye-catching summer recruitment or the Gunners' impressive 3-0 Community Shield win last weekend, the reigning champion of England was far too readily dismissed. Sunday at St. James' Park provided the first opportunity for a response.

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That City's performance in victory was unconvincing only made the statement of intent more emphatic. There were infrequent flashes of the devastating attacking soccer that yielded 102 goals last season — the flowing team move, culminating in a brilliant improvised Edin Dzeko backheel, that led to David Silva's clinical opener was a genuine delight — but for the most part Manuel Pellegrini's men were disjointed and vulnerable.

Yaya Toure was far below last season's rampaging best, Stevan Jovetic could not continue his preseason heroics and Gael Clichy looked predictably uncomfortable at right back. Newcastle, inspired by marquee summer signing Remy Cabella, roared on by a typically vociferous home support, prodded and probed and never lost faith. Moussa Sissoko and Ayoze Perez both wasted good chances to affect the outcome in a tense second half.

Yet on a weekend when many of the pretenders to the throne only narrowly overcame inferior opposition, City emerged unscathed from probably the toughest assignment of the lot. Newcastle lost just three times at St. James' Park last season before the January sale of Yohan Cabaye wrecked its campaign. On this evidence, it will trouble many of the Premier League's finest on home turf. But on this occasion, Alan Pardew's men found themselves undone by opponents who never troubled their top gear.

City rode its luck at times in the second half but had enough skill to prevent a Newcastle rally from becoming a siege late, and Sergio Aguero's goal-scoring cameo provided further evidence of the club's obscene squad depth. Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna, Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, Fernandinho, James Milner and new signing Eliaquim Mangala did not even feature at St. James' Park. On the pitch and off it, the champions have much more to give. 

After a scrappy opening weekend, applying the age-old concept of "winning ugly" being the mark of champions brings us no closer to knowing who will lift the Premier League trophy in May. Manchester United was humbled by Swansea City, Liverpool was pushed hard by a team it ravaged in the summer and only a late Aaron Ramsey goal gave Arsenal victory against a club in the throes of managerial crisis. None of the contenders has hit the ground running, though Jose Mourinho's formidable-looking Chelsea has a chance to buck that trend against Burnley on Monday.

It is the Blues who many believe will be the ones to snatch away City's crown, having added the exceptional creativity of Cesc Fabregas and predatory instincts of Diego Costa to what was the meanest defense in the Premier League last season. The club certainly looks far more complete now, but the truth is that the team it is chasing was already there.

With the arrivals of Mangala, Fernando, Sagna and Willy Caballero, this rather understated summer at the Etihad Stadium was merely about filling in scattered and minor gaps in a stellar squad.

City's quality remains close to unrivaled and the nature of Sunday's win suggests it has lost little of the hunger that drove it to glory last season. The club carries itself like a champion.

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