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Battling Newcastle too much for wasteful Liverpool at St James' Park

ANALYST
Feature
222   //    02 Oct 2017, 12:12 IST

Liverpool v Newcastle United - Premier League
Rafa Benitez outsmarted Jurgen Klopp to grab a crucial point for Newcastle

Under the watchful eye of a potential new investor at boardroom level, Newcastle United showed how they are fighting for a better future on the pitch as well as off it. The Magpies continued their recent form at home to Liverpool by holding an erratic and frustrated Reds side to a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park on Sunday afternoon.

Speculation that Magpies owner Mike Ashley may finally grant thousands of fans their wish of almost a decade and sell the club increased when a businesswoman named Amanda Staveley, who is worth a reported £28billion, was spotted in the crowd. Links with Chinese investment over the summer came to nothing, but everyone has been left with bated breath as this intriguing story unfolds. Newcastle certainly sold themselves with a performance full of the trademark grit, determination and power synonymous with the club, matched by an equally hair-raising atmosphere from the stands.

Familiar failings for Liverpool

As always with Jurgen Klopp’s men, the general consensus was while they should come away with three points, they would either blow Newcastle, and their former boss Rafa Benitez, out of the water, or struggle to break down a robust home side and have their own defensive frailties exposed on the counter-attack. Unfortunately for Klopp and the travelling hordes from Merseyside, it was the latter, but the manner in which it happened will have frustrated both a lot more than it will have surprised either. With just one win in seven heading into the international break, this has been a recurring theme in recent weeks.

Newcastle United v Liverpool - Premier League

One piece of magic from Philippe Coutinho proved exactly why Liverpool rejected a £118million bid from Barcelona in the summer. The Brazilian’s long-range effort would have been too much for any defensive shape, let alone one so organised as the hosts. But neither was it repeated nor built on, and as before, Coutinho was forced to come deep to make an impact on the game. Sadio Mane, returning from a three-match ban, was barely more than a spectator and both Mohamed Salah and Daniel Sturridge spurned the opportunities that manifested themselves.

In the early stages, Liverpool looked like they could tear through Newcastle; possession was all in the attacking third and their passing was fast, accurate and crisp. Benitez rested Isaac Hayden and brought in Jonjo Shelvey to play alongside Mikel Merino; while fans had wanted to see a more expansive approach, there was a sense of worry that Shelvey’s erratic behaviour and propensity to push the team forward would not mix against the visitors’ array of attacking talent. They began by pressing the ball, with Shelvey, in particular, leading the charge; it left space in behind. Christian Atsu appeared to be having too much fun against Joe Gomez, too, allowing the stand-in Liverpool right back to set the pace going forward.

There was more than a little fortune about Newcastle’s equaliser, not least because Liverpool were finding ways through in the build-up to it. But if the doubts of starting Shelvey were coming to fruition up until that point, the benefits became even clearer. An inch-perfect pass broke through an extremely high Liverpool back line, which had so little cohesion about it, allowing Joselu in on goal; his finish was unorthodox, lucky some would say, but after weeks of seeing chances go begging, it was a welcome relief for the Spaniard to see the net bustle.

Newcastle United v Liverpool - Premier League

After Leicester knocked Liverpool out of the Carabao Cup with a 2-0 win at the King Power Stadium last month, Klopp said he was “sick” of conceding easy goals. His feelings will hardly have improved and after building towards a good performance in the first half, they were back at square one. The Reds boss bemoaned their missed chances, claiming they should have won the game because Newcastle created just one. One is all it takes, and against a defensive lineup such as that, it is always going to come at some stage.

A perfect audition from Newcastle

By the second half, Shelvey and Merino had settled into the same midfield pattern evident for most of the season. They began to hold off on the pressing, forcing Liverpool to play in front of them; there was no way through for Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum’s energy was compromised. Coutinho disappeared for long spells and the front three were cut off. But for another Salah run after a mistake by the otherwise irrepressible DeAndre Yedlin, which led to Sturridge blasting over the bar, Newcastle had Liverpool exactly where they wanted them.

Benitez had been calling for his team to be more compact throughout the first half and it showed after the break. All eleven players worked in tandem to shrink into a shape that couldn’t be broken, but when the sporadic attacks broke down, both Matt Ritchie and Atsu pulled wide to provide the option of a quick breakaway. Ayoze Perez worked hard to create a link between Joselu and the midfield once those behind them began to ease the pressure.

Most people predicted Liverpool would win this game because of their superior attack, but actually, Newcastle came out of it with a point because of their superior defence. Their winless run at St James’ Park stretches back four years, and they hadn’t won before then since December 2008. It really wasn’t a surprise to see such a performance and result on Sunday.

If Amanda Staveley is genuinely interested in buying Newcastle United, she picked a good day to watch a game. Passionate, organised, aggressive and together, Newcastle could hardly have sold it better. Rafa Benitez had the whole stadium chanting his name, but as always, sentiment didn’t get the better of him and his plan worked perfectly once again.

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ANALYST
Freelance European football journalist with various websites.
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