Situated on the broadcasting gantry within Anfield’s main stand, Oliver Miller offers his view on Liverpool’s Premier League match against Newcastle United.
At their sparkling best Liverpool were not. It was a bitterly cold and slightly foggy evening at Anfield and, although Mohamed Salah kept his scoring run going to send Liverpool back to second place in the league table, it was not a match to warm the cockles of one’s heart. Despite Liverpool leapfrogging Manchester United – albeit before United’s game on Monday evening against Crystal Palace and the big one at Old Trafford next Saturday – it was the prospect of widening the gap between themselves and Chelsea in fifth that Liverpool supporters relished. It revealed the honest truth that being named the ‘best of the rest’ would be nice but finishing in the top four is the main objective.
Despite the lack of quality football on show, it was a comfortable victory for the hosts. It was achieved with relative ease and underlined why this is the most entertaining Anfield team in a long while. They scored their 200th goal of the Jurgen Klopp reign in his 97th fixture. “When something is good – as it is obviously – the faith and trust improves,” said Klopp, noting a more patient, believing Anfield crowd than the one he inherited. “You have to earn things like this. The people now are more convinced that it can happen in a moment than they did before.” That might explain the rather low-key atmosphere around Anfield as night descended, or perhaps that was the chilly evening breeze.
Chances were few and far between as Newcastle opted for a defensive approach with a back five supported by four midfielders. However, Mohamed Salah doesn’t need much space to create, and within 11 minutes he had already had his first sight of goal – Paul Dummett’s face felt the full force of his shot. Minutes later Emre Can – who was careless in possession for much of the match – hoisted a ball forward from halfway that allowed Salah to easily run through Newcastle’s porous defence, only to put his first-time half-volley into the side-netting.
Newcastle were content to do more defending than attacking, a trait that Rafael Benitez has developed during his time in the North-East. The Newcastle United manager is still well thought of and respected amongst most of the Anfield crowd and, come kick-off, he was still unbeaten as an opposing manager at Liverpool’s famous stadium. From the first-half showing, it looked like Benetiz and Newcastle would have to wait a little while longer to pick up another victory on Merseyside. A Liverpool goal was inevitable; Dejan Lovren brought a save from Martin Dubravka – who appeared to be the toughest barrier that Liverpool had to surpass – with a header from a corner. Roberto Firmino then found Salah in the area but Florian Lejeune managed to intercept.
The visitors had a lucky escape when Dubravka came for a Salah corner – which like the other seven were superbly delivered – and missed, the ball travelling harmlessly across the goal and out of play for a goal-kick. It was clear that the hosts would not be kept at bay for long, and the breakthrough finally arrived five minutes from the interval. Of course, it was Salah who applied the finishing touch, though Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain deserves praise for seizing a loose ball and powering instinctively towards goal with energy and strength. At first, he looked to be shaping for a shot, but as Mo Diame closed in the Liverpool midfielder released the ball to Salah, whose left-foot shot went through Dubravka’s legs. George Sephton must feel little need to announce the Liverpool goalscorers at the moment; if it’s not Salah then it’s normally Firmino or Mane.
Going behind normally encourages the team to play with a little more adventure, but then again this is Newcastle and Benitez and it looked like limiting the goal difference was their only priority. However, to be fair, the visitors did have a chance in the latter stages of the first-half albeit it out of the blue; Diame beat Can to the ball and struck a shot from the edge of the area towards the top-corner, but Loris Karius leaped high to his right and pushed the ball away with one hand. “It felt as good as a goal,” Klopp admitted post-match.
The second-half followed on from the first. Attack against defence. Newcastle kept everyone except Dwight Gayle – who only had 16 touches including one scuffed shot – behind the ball and denied Liverpool space. Liverpool dominated possession but few chances resulted from it. A second goal did arrive in the 55th minute. More surprisingly was that it wasn’t Salah. Mane started the move and finished it following a neat final ball from Firmino that caught the Newcastle defence by surprise. There was no fight back, no attempt to throw caution to the wind but rather an acceptance of a 2-0 defeat.
Newcastle were lucky to not concede a penalty, or even two. Firstly, Salah’s shot hit Jamaal Lascelles on the arm as the centre-back tried to fling himself in the way, though as he was in the process of turning his back and not looking at the ball referee Graham Scott waved play on. Then, in the final minutes of the match, Salah was fouled by the Newcastle defender but it was probably just outside the penalty area. The incident got Klopp as exacerbated as he had been all evening, he felt it was “100% a red card” and labelled Lascelles “a lucky man.”
A result that looked destined from the first minute was confirmed with the final whistle. A two-nil victory is normally greeted with a cheer but not this one; such was the ease and unspectacular nature with which it was achieved. The final whistle couldn’t come soon enough for both the Liverpool fans and the travelling Geordies who entered the freezing night air pondering whether it would have been better to agree on the scoreline beforehand and not have bothered with the match itself.