Round 29 of this season’s Premier League was a treat for Liverpool fans – Newcastle United came to Anfield, which means one of the heroes of our glorious past has come for a visit: Rafa Benitez.
Great to see this man back at Anfield! 😄👋 pic.twitter.com/63ejkiPbXF
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) March 3, 2018
But in a moment when points are of vital importance for both teams, it was imperative for both parties to put all sentiments to one side and do their best to win the game.
For the first time since the season began, all Liverpool players are fit, but in his press conference Jurgen Klopp revealed that Georginio Wijnaldum and Ben Woodburn were both unavailable for a different reason.
— kirkby Red (@scousemouse1976) March 3, 2018
So, without the two midfielders, this is the 18-man squad the manager had chosen:
🚨 TEAM NEWS 🚨
How we line-up against Newcastle this evening… 👇 pic.twitter.com/6RkzFUogmf
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) March 3, 2018
Rafa also missed two players, former Liverpool midfielder Jonjo Shelvey and striker Islam Slimani.
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) March 3, 2018
The First Half
Liverpool started the game strongly, dominating possession in a convincing manner and pushing Newcastle far back. They were playing in a setup that mostly looked like a 4-2-3-1, with Emre Can and Jordan Henderson sitting deep in midfield and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain further up in the No.10 role, but it would occasionally shift to Klopp’s standard 4-3-3, when Can moved further up, and even 4-4-2 with Salah going narrower beside Roberto Firmino and Mane dropping closer to Oxlade-Chamberlain, leaving the flanks to the fullbacks.
The first chance came after five minutes. Trent Alexander-Arnold crossed from deep right, Jamaal Lascelles misjudged the flight and allowed Sadio Mane to take it on his chest on the edge of six yards, but the touch was a tad too strong and Lascelles managed to recover and clear the box.
In the 11th minute, another chance for Liverpool occurred, this time for Mohamed Salah. Mane engaged Andy Robertson on the left, Robertson’s cross found Salah just behind the penalty spot. Liverpool’s top scorer caught it on a volley but it was blocked.
Three minutes later, the first sign of Newcastle hitting back. A long pass was aimed behing the Reds’ back line for Christian Atsu to chase, but Loris Karius was quick off his line and out of the box to sweep up. Then a good pass from the middle by Emre Can found Salah at a tight angle on the left, but he took a powerful shot from 18 yards and forced Martin Dubravka to make a good save.
After about a quarter of the game, the Magpies started playing a little better. They held on to possession significantly more than earlier, which enabled them to move forward. They had a free-kick inside Liverpool’s half, around 40 yards from Karius’ goal, but Florian Lejeune tried a direct shot and made Karius’ work easy.
The Reds quickly regained full control and attacked again. In the 26th minute, Salah took a corner from the right, Lovren was the tallest in the air, but the Croatian hit his header into the ground. Still, it bounced awkwardly and was only barely pushed away off the line by Dubravka, who was being distracted by Mane. Lovren tried again but this time he was blocked well.
A fantastic chance happen right after that. Emre Can stole the ball in the middle and gave it to Firmino. The Brazilian did what he does so well – caught the attention of Newcastle’s centre-backs, thus creating a sizable pocket of space for the incoming Salah on his right, and then simply passed to him. However, Salah for once took too long and was eventually closed down, and his shot was blocked.
With half an hour gone, Dwight Gayle tried one from 35 yards and hit the higher rows of the Kop.
However, three minutes later Gayle beat Alexander-Arnold out wide, but there was nobody in black-and-white near to pass to, and nothing came of it.
The visitors were starting to look better. Their new plan seemed to be to try and find Gayle in behind with long passes. His pace and unexpected strength, a well as clever body positioning, helped him cause more problems than one would expect from a striker of his physique playing off long passes.
But in the 34th minute, they committed more bodies forward and it immediately nearly backfired. A quick counterattack ensued, with Mane finding Firmino, Firmino involving Henderson, and eventually Can finding Salah wide, but Salah’s cross towards Oxlade-Chamberlain was blocked.
A minute later, Newcastle tried to conduct a counterattack themselves, but Alexander-Arnold expertly put a stop to Jacob Murphy’s run down the flank. In fact, it was a rather frustrating affair for Murphy throughout. Alexander-Arnold was just too good and too quick for him on countless occasions.
Forty minutes were gone when Henderson and Mikel Merino battled for the ball in the middle of the pitch. It eventually bounced loose of the Newcastle player, and Oxlade-Chamberlain acted quickly. Picking it up, he went around Mohamed Diame like he was rounding a lamppost, took the ball a bit further, drawing the Newcastle back line onto himself. And they came, leaving Salah once again in quite enough space. Ox poked it for him, and Salah was more himself this time. Passing between the goalkeeper’s legs, the ball hit the back of the net.
Mane almost made it two straight afterwards. Henderson sent a long pass to the left where Firmino made his run, Firmino dribbled past an opponent and pulled it back for the incoming Mane, but the defenders threw themselves in front of him and blocked the shot from just outside the six-yard box.
The visitors had their best moment of the game just before the halftime whistle. After a long attack, Diame sent a well placed shot from around 20 yards, straight into the top corner. Unfortunately for him, that moment was also Karius’ best as he flew through the air and saved it.
The Second Half
After the restart, the visitors pressed high up the pitch, and Liverpool were suddenly having trouble to play the ball out from the back. The Magpies kept winning possession high up and the Reds were really hard put to it for a few minutes.
In the 48th minute however, Liverpool finally broke through. Firmino found Salah with a long pass forward, but Salah was alone upfront and eventually stopped by the Newcastle defence. Three minutes later, the Egyptian took a shot from 18 yards that hit the arm of Lascelles. The Kop screamed for a penalty, but in all fairness, the defender hadn’t moved his arm to block the shot on purpose, it was in a rather natural position, and referee Graham Scott rightly remained silent.
However, his decision to initially remain silent a minute later was a questionable one. A Newcastle cross from deep was aimed at Lascelles who had gone forward. Lovren fended him off while Karius came and caught the ball. In the process, Lascelles deliberately elbowed Lovren in the back of the head but no foul was given, let alone a booking. Scott did eventually stop the play, but only because of a possible head injury to Lovren. Our defender however got up and shook it off.
Liverpool had the lead and were clearly the better team in this game throughout, and if the visitors had any hopes of snatching a point with a counterattack or a set-piece, they were dashed in the 55th minute. It was a moment that perfectly summed up the brilliance and the importance of Roberto Firmino for Klopp’s team.
The Brazilian came back into his own half to win the ball, and passed it to Emre Can. He then smartly moved forward, out of the attention of his opponents and into a large pocket of space – something he has become an incredible expert for. Meanwhile, he watched as Can extended the pass to the left to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Oxlade-Chamberlain passed forward to Mane on the edge of the centre-circle, and Mane laid it off for Can again and ran forward. Then Firmino asked for the ball back and took it forward, charging at the Newcastle back line down the middle. Making a slight movement to the left, he dragged a defender out of position and created all the space a player like Sadio Mane needs to score.
What a goal. pic.twitter.com/xtKLYNJGvS
— 🔴 (@JurgenPressed) March 3, 2018
To their credit, the visitors never looked like giving up. They still tried to press high whenever they could and managed to cause a few problems for Liverpool in their own half, but those occasions were too few to be of any use.
Feeling that Gayle faded out of the game in the second half, in the 66th minute Rafa pulled the striker out and sent Joselu in – a straight swap.
In the 68th minute, the referee once again failed to react properly. De Andre Yedlin maliciously kicked Andy Roberson after failing to get the ball. The foul was given, but no booking.
Five minutes later, the teams made a substitution each. Merino and Mane left the pitch, and Isaac Hayden and Adam Lallana came on.
Lallana took the place of Oxlade-Chamberlan while Ox moved to the left where Mane had mostly been.
Eleven minutes from time, Oxlade-Chamberlain made way for James Milner.
As Newcastle tried to push forward at the last stage of the game, Joselu took a shot from range and hit Henderson on the arm. It was now the Magpies’ turn to ask for a penalty but the referee wasn’t interested.
A minute later, Ayoze Perez came on for Murphy in Rafa’s last throw of the dice.
Newcastle now had more of the ball, but they were looking completely toothless, while Liverpool stayed disciplined and waited patiently for an opportunity to hit them on a counter.
In order to add to that discipline and secure a clean sheet, Klopp took out Firmino two minutes from time and sent Joel Matip in.
Just before the 90 were up, the first of two late controversial moments occurred. Salah went down in the box after contact from Lascelles and the Kop again screamed for a penalty. The referee looked at the linesman, but nothing was given.
And then, just as the last of the three minutes of injury time was about to expire, Salah was through, going straight at the ‘keeper, when Lascelles clearly brought him down from behind with a push and a trip. It happened less than a yard outside the box, so a penalty would have been out of the question, but a foul and a direct red card were a must. And yet – nothing. No foul, no card.
And that was it.
It was a fine performance from the Reds overall, and the three points are more than deserved. Like last week, they move to second place again, but Manchester United will have a chance to regain it for themselves when they play Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Monday.
Next up – Porto. And then… Well, you know.
Whatever happens, we walk on.