“To lose is never good news, but all the teams lose games. Why can we not lose games? It is important not to lose again. The most important is the next one, Newcastle is so, so important.”
That was Pep Guardiola’s reaction after Manchester City’s 4-3 defeat to Liverpool — their first significant blip of the season. Just over 24 hours later second-placed Manchester United won at home to Stoke City to reduce City’s lead to 12 points at the top of the Premier League and it had Paul Pogba and Juan Mata insisting the title race is not yet done.
Guardiola wants a quick reaction to show that Anfield was a minor stumble on their procession to the title. He could hardly have hand-picked a better opponent than Newcastle United to get his side back on track.
Here are five reasonS why …
If City were unsettled by Liverpool’s high-pressing, Newcastle’s approach to Saturday’s game will be the polar opposite. Guardiola’s side travelled to St James’ Park two days after Christmas and produced one of the most one-sided fixtures in Premier League history although the scoreline ended 1-0.
Newcastle’s defensive tactics were set from the kickoff — Jonjo Shelvey shot from the halfway line and the Magpies immediately retreated to the edge of their own box to soak up City attacks.
At half time, City had 83 percent possession and were on course to break the Premier League record of 82.28 percent they set beating Queens Park Rangers on the final day of the 2011-12 season.
Newcastle at least reduced that statistic to 78 percent by full time with a semi-adventurous final 10 minutes, but Rafa Benitez’s philosophy couldn’t be more different to former club Liverpool.
Whether pressing is the way to stop City — and that remains up for debate as they’ve only been beaten once — Newcastle’s tactic will be to hold out for a miraculous point.
Sergio Aguero was curiously ineffective against Liverpool — failing to have a single shot on target in a wide open match that produced seven goals. Anfield has never been a lucky place for City, who have won only once there in the past 36 years, or for Aguero, who has never scored there.
The same can’t be said for Newcastle. The Argentinian has scored more goals against the Magpies than any other team. He has scored 11 times in 11 games averaging a goal every 59.73 minutes. Those figures were boosted by a brilliant five-goal haul when City beat the Magpies 6-1 two years ago.
Aguero has been is relatively good form since a knee injury ruled out fellow striker Gabriel Jesus, scoring four goals in his past four matches.
He didn’t find the net at St James’ Park six weeks ago — hitting the woodwork twice — but in a season when he has 19 goals from 26 appearances, his favourite club must be concerned that he has something to prove after his Liverpool performance.
3. Back at the Etihad
In all competitions, City have played 17 matches at home this season and have won 16 — their solitary slip-up a draw against Everton when they were reduced to 10 men.
They’ve scored 50 goals in those matches — at just under three per game — with only Championship leaders Wolves stopping them from scoring over 90 minutes.
Newcastle have won their past two Premier League away matches after taking just five points from their first nine. But they’ve never won at the Etihad in the league — conceding 19 times and scoring just once in their past four league visits.
4. Alexis who?
Much of the week has been dominated by events off the pitch with the on/off move for Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez finally falling through. City players have their first opportunity to send an emphatic message that they don’t need the Chilean, who now looks Old Trafford-bound.
Guardiola’s squad have had their first midweek free since August and have been rewarded with some time off to rest and recuperate.
But they are a close-knit squad and will return to their Etihad training base determined to show the quality that has seen them record the best-ever Premier League record after 23 games and why they don’t need any reinforcements.
5. Newcastle on the ropes
Newcastle fans have had a fractured relationship with owner Mike Ashley and that will have been strained further by the news that prospective buyer Amanda Staveley has pulled out of takeover talks.
It’s renewed suggestions that the popular Benitez is set to walk away from the club because of an inability to bring in new players.
The mood of the club’s fan base will be frustrated by the latest news and, though the players will be spared having to play in front of a potentially toxic atmosphere at home, their loyal travelling fans will make their unhappiness clear if events turn sour on the pitch.
Jonathan is ESPN FC’s Manchester City correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @jonnysmiffy.