MANCHESTER CITY 1 NEWCASTLE UNITED 0
MAYBE the Manchester City players were right. They claimed they were not working hard enough and less than a fortnight into their new training regime they did something yesterday that had looked beyond them ? win at home. In doing so they have almost certainly preserved their Premiership status.
This victory, courtesy of Paulo Wanchope's third goal of the season, puts them six points ahead of Leeds United who, even if they win at Bolton today, will be three behind with only two games to play. Given City's overwhelming superiority in goal difference, the chase for safety is all but over.
City's win was as unexpected as it was unwelcome for Newcastle United, who were given a damaging blow to their prospects of qualifying for the Champions League. Kevin Keegan's team had won only two of their previous 24 Premiership matches and had been successful only three times in their City of Manchester Stadium. But then when were they ever predictable? Certainly not yesterday, when they provided compelling evidence of the narrow gap that lies between teams outside the top trio and those trying to keep out of the bottom three. Newcastle began well and faded; City shook off their nerves, got better and thoroughly deserved their victory.
Cue relief in the blue half of Manchester and a vindication of the "hard work pays" school. The new City way may not be akin to a boot camp but since the players complained to Keegan that they needed more, not less, labour they have trained every day and have since picked up four vital points from their last six. "When you are losing games, " Keegan said, "especially at home, and you can't raise a gallop because of the tension, the supporters see that as 'they don't really care', the effort's not there. This was a big game and we needed to show some spirit, which we did." They did but there was little evidence they were going to at the start and Newcastle could have been ahead while the echoes of "Blue Moon" were still ringing round the stands. The game was not a minute old when Laurent Robert took advantage of a flimsy wall to hit a 35-yard free-kick. It was a shot that the Frenchman will not remember fondly but it almost worked in visitors' favour and if Titus Bramble had been a forward rather than a centre-back he would probably have untangled his feet in time to turn it into a through pass.
Nine minutes later Bramble managed to escape the marking again as a series of high balls landed in the City area. This time he was more alert and his header beat David James only for Wanchope to clear off the line.
James came to City's rescue after 22 minutes when Alan Shearer's flick-on pushed Shola Ameobi ahead of Richard Dunne. The Newcastle striker, who earlier had been fractions away from a Robert cross, got a good connection this time but volley was too close to James.
That proved to be Newcastle's best chance and rather than the visitors building on their superiority, it was City who made the best shapes. The first half finished with Shay Given having to turn away a powerful header from Richard Dunne and, duly encouraged, they dominated after the interval.
Shaun Wright-Phillips' speed on the right frequently got him ahead of Olivier Bernard and a series of attacks down that flank chipped away at Newcastle's composure. Wright-Phillips set up Paul Bosvelt only for him to blaze over and another cross from the right almost resulted in a home goal when Bramble headed nonchalantly in the direction of his goalkeeper and almost discovered the perfect pass for Wanchope.
Given City's increasing dominance on that flank it was almost inevitable that the winning goal should come from it, although WrightPhillips was conspicuous by his absence. This time he stayed deep to allow Nicolas Anelka to stray into his territory and slip past Bramble with a deft turn that was complemented by an equally precise cross. Wanchope was waiting on the penalty spot and it spoke for the power he got from a distance of 12 yards that he easily beat Given with his header that went in by the far post.