MANCHESTER, England -- Three quick thoughts from Manchester City's 2-1 Premier League win over Newcastle United at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.
1. Walker helps City get back to winning ways
Manchester City celebrated the 10th anniversary of Sheikh Mansour's takeover with the kind of outcome that has been so familiar throughout his ownership of the club. They got back to winning ways against a defensive Newcastle side that briefly threatened to upset them when DeAndre Yedlin equalised Raheem Sterling's early goal, Kyle Walker proving an unlikely hero with an excellent long-range drive early in the second half. It was his first goal for City and lifted them to third in the nascent Premier League table.
Newcastle's hopes of frustrating the home side lasted a little over seven minutes. Riyad Mahrez had already shot wide after cutting inside from the right when, on the opposite flank, Sterling worked his magic. When Jamaal Lascelles gave the ball away deep inside his own half, Benjamin Mendy quickly fed the England winger and the path to goal was set. Sterling jinked into the area, took aim and cracked a precise effort into Martin Dubravka's bottom-right corner.
The floodgates threatened to open. Sergio Aguero, seeking a 15th goal in 12 games against the Magpies, shot narrowly wide from 25 yards and then set up Gabriel Jesus, who might have done better than fire straight at Dubravka. In the 27th minute, Jesus fluffed a free header, but there was no sense at that point that the visitors had the aptitude to get back on terms.
But they did exactly that on the half-hour mark from their first meaningful attack. Yedlin, making a lung-busting run beyond Jesus at the far post, finished first time from Salomon Rondon's slide-rule centre, and suddenly City were rattled. Against the odds, Newcastle held out until the interval in relative comfort.
City needed to work through the gears again; either that or they required a bolt from the blue. Walker provided the latter seven minutes after half-time and his goal was worth the year-long wait. Given space to size up an effort from 25 yards after Aguero's pass, he sent a low, fierce drive beyond Dubravka and the visitors were back to square one.
Dubravka a made an outstanding triple save from Fernandinho and David Silva -- twice -- as City looked to turn the screw this time. But the second half fizzled out, with Newcastle never threatening a second leveller and Aguero missing a late chance. In a strange way, both teams could leave feeling happy enough.
2. City's full-backs make the difference
Walker and Mendy are perfect weapons for days like this. City's attacking full-backs made all the difference in a match that saw more feted names flatter to deceive and perhaps masked the fact that, not for the first time, the champions are not quite functioning at full tilt.
Mendy's return to fitness has given City the dynamic, menacing, attacking left-back they lacked for most of last season, and his aggression was directly responsible for the first goal. It was the France international, stationed two-thirds of the way up the pitch, who seized on Lascelles' error and let Sterling do the rest. He has now been involved in six of City's 11 goals this term and has added yet another dimension to a team that hardly lacked creative brilliance.
Nobody would have marked Walker out as a potential match-winner, but his coruscating drive, crowning his usual all-action showing up and down the right flank, was worthy of any game and got City out of a hole. While they could have put the game to bed before Yedlin's wake-up call, they were far from their free-flowing best for most of the afternoon.
Kevin De Bruyne's injury absence deprives them of their most varied passer and a player who can change a game's tempo with one move; Mahrez, who was replaced by Bernardo Silva before the hour mark, looked off the pace here, and there is a suspicion that he does not quite possess his teammates' speed of thought. He is more of a soloist: here he missed an early chance, and from that moment, nothing really came off.
It was also a frustrating afternoon for Jesus, who has looked short of form and confidence since Brazil's World Cup exit. He should have scored and might have tracked Yedlin more assiduously for Newcastle's goal. Pep Guardiola paired him up front with Aguero, but neither quite found any rhythm.
Yet City still came away with the points, and as the league settles down, that is what matters. They showed here that when all else fails, they can win a game from anywhere on the park.
3. Benitez must dig deep once again
Rafael Benitez must be praying for Newcastle's season to start in earnest. They are now four-fifths of the way through a fiendish opening to the campaign that has brought meetings with Tottenham, Chelsea, City and -- in a fortnight -- Arsenal. Ever the pragmatist, Benitez believes his side has little hope of going toe to toe against opposition of that level and again looked to bolt the door shut here; on paper, this has been a troubling start to 2018-19, but Newcastle can be judged only when they face opposition against whom they can realistically play some football.
Anyone wondering whether Benitez would open up at the Etihad needed only to read his prematch comments.
"Of course I'd like to play with three strikers and attack them from the beginning and press high," he said. "But we have seen a lot of examples of what happens when you try that against Man City."
It was no double bluff: Newcastle sat in from the start and, even after Sterling's goal, showed no special inclination to reverse the tide. Halfway through the first half, their pass completion was a mere 53 percent; at that point, it was tempting to wonder whether it was any use in their having turned up at all.
Yedlin's well-executed strike -- the first in the Premier League by a U.S. international since March 2014 -- appeared to vindicate Benitez's approach. If nothing else, it suggested a rare efficiency in attack. In fact, they kept City at arm's length for much of the ensuing hour, but against opponents of this standard, a sucker punch is always likely to come from somewhere.
It was certainly an improvement on Newcastle's previous three visits to the Etihad, which brought an aggregate of 14-1 in City's favour. Benitez can point to the fact that Newcastle have lost by only a single goal to all of their top six opponents so far; surely, though, he must be wishing for something more.