They say it tends to get lonely at the top. Well, Liverpool were sitting pretty, four points ahead of Manchester City in second place, when our old friend Rafa Benitez came to visit on Boxing Day, 2018. Time had come to wrap the first half of the Premier League season up.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip were still out. Trent Alexander-Arnold was back after his foot injury, and Naby Keita recovered from the problem that saw him substituted early in the second half of the win against Wolves.
Rafa was without Ciaran Clark, Karl Darlow and former Liverpool midfielder Jonjo Shelvey.
The First Half
While Liverpool were arranged in a 4-2-3-1, Newcastle’s shape was a bit unusual, a variant of 3-2-3-2, very offensive if executed properly. But with the two defensive midfielders slotting into the defensive line, they formed a tight 5-3-2 when on the back foot.
The Reds had the visitors against the ropes within two minutes with some superb team football being played down the left side, but the Magpies held out and soon opened their own game up. They obviously hadn’t come to sit back.
In the eighth minute, Ritchie swung in two crosses from the left, and while the first one was well cleared by Lovren, the other went over van Dijk and found Joselu, whose header from six yards bounced off the ground and went wide. Shaqiri was next to waste a good chance at the other end being set up by Mane, but in the 11th minute, Lovren broke the deadlock.
Shaqiri took a corner short and passed to Robertson who swung in a deep cross to the far post. Lascelles jumped high and cleared it, but he only managed to find the Croatian at some 15 yards. A thunderous half-volley sent the ball past Dubravka, under the bar and slamming into the back of the net.
The Reds took another corner six minutes later. Newcastle defended well, and Henderson was forced to thwart a dangerous counterattack with a tackle that was dubiously given as a foul. The free-kick found Muto whose header was too weak to trouble Alisson.
Liverpool hit back immediately through Wijnaldum’s hard work to keep the ball in the middle before giving it to Firmino. Firmino produced a fabulous lobbed pass and found Mane in behind, but Mane’s chest control wasn’t quite as good as it was two rounds ago and Dubravka reacted well.
Ritchie had a go from range a few minutes later after dispossessing Shaqiri in his own half, but his rocket went several yards wide.
It was Liverpool who dominated the game, but Rafa’s men did have a strategy for sudden pressing, and they did win the ball a few times. But once they did, they weren’t able to cause Liverpool any harm.
The Reds came close again after half an hour when a long attack culminated with Trent squaring the ball across the six yards for Mane, but it went behind the Senegalese’s back and caught him on the wrong foot. Seven minutes later, Shaqiri wasted some excellent work by Henderson who had brilliantly won the ball and involved the Swiss, by allowing his pass for Salah to be read and intercepted with the visitors’ defence stretched. Two minutes later, Shaqiri found Mane inside the box and Mane cushioned it down for van Dijk to volley, but the opposition prevented the Dutchman from replicating Lovren’s strike with a timely block. Henderson tried one from range three minutes before halftime but failed to hit the target.
Then Wijnaldum earned a free-kick at 25 yards, in a good position for a left-footed shooter. Shaqiri lined it up and swung it straight over the wall and under the bar, but Dubravka made a top goalkeeper’s save.
The Second Half
It took Liverpool just three minutes to double their lead. Mo Salah stormed into the box and got his heel tripped from behind by Dummett. Referee Graham Scott pointed to the spot, from which Salah gave Dubravka no chance for a save.
In the 53rd minute, Salah combined nicely with Robertson down the left and lobbed a cross towards Mane and Shaqiri on the far post, but Newcastle somehow managed to prevent them from shooting. A minute later, Shaqiri intercepted a pass from Lascelles and released Mane into the box. Mane was slightly too casual as he tried to square it for Firmino and allowed the Newcastle captain to redeem himself.
The second goal seemed to have taken a bit of the sting from the game for a while. Liverpool were comfortable and playing in a relaxed manner, sort of a training ground mode, while the Magpies did practically the same, happy to just do what they can and see where it takes them, without feeling any pressure to come back into the contest.
After just over an hour, Wijnaldum, who was booed by Newcastle supporters a few times, made way for Fabinho.
With the visitors relaxing slightly, Liverpool tried to catch them off guard a few times and Trent almost found Mane in behind with a lovely long ball, but the linesman’s flag was up.
After a while, the Reds turned the screw again and pressed their opponents deep. Fantastic combinations that included almost every Liverpool player were coming in thick from both flanks and through the middle, and Newcastle’s back line had a lot to do.
Minute 69 was passing when Klopp withdrew Firmino who had had an excellent game, probably with Arsenal on Saturday in mind, and sent on Daniel Sturridge. Salah moved to the right and Shaqiri to the middle.
As the game entered its final 20 minutes, frustration was beginning to show on the visitors’ faces. Mistakes, clumsiness and unnecessary fouls appeared in their game, and Rafa had to act. Kenedy made way for Sean Longstaff.
The Magpies then created a rare chance. Ritchie swung in a trademark cross from the left and and Hayden got away from Robertson on the far post, but he failed to control his volley and it went far off the mark.
But it was all about the Reds after that. A long and defence-wearying move was recycled by Henderson who sent Trent running down the right flank, and Trent’s perfectly squared ball found the run of Shaqiri who really didn’t have too much to do to put the ball in the net.
Then Robertson made way for Nathaniel Clyne, who slotted in at left-back.
Five minutes from time, Salah won and took a corner on the right. His cross was aimed right into he six-yards box, and as Lovren missed it by an inch, Fabinho, who had been blocking Dubravka, stepped out and hammered it in, scoring his first goal in a Liverpool shirt.
Just three minutes later, Lovren found Mane with a superb 50-yard ball, the Senegalese controlled it with sublime skill and whacked it from the edge of the box, beating Dubravka but sending his volley over the bar by an inch.
As the three-minute injury time started flowing, Trent found Sturridge on the far post with a nice cross and Sturridge tried to put it in, but only managed to hit the net on the outside. Newcastle came close to a consolation goal, but Alisson first made a brave tackle on the edge of the box and then recovered just in time to block Longstaff’s effort. Clyne tried to hit one from inside the box late on but his shot was blocked as well.
There’s no real point in discussing this game overmuch. To put it simply, Liverpool were good, Newcastle weren’t, and that’s about it when it comes to summing it up. The visitors created a few chances but never a clear-cut one, and they failed to take any of them. Liverpool on the other hand played quickly and cunningly, with focus in key moments and real desire throughout the contest, and the Magpies can consider themselves lucky to go home with just four goals conceded.
However, the biggest news of the day came from the King Power Stadium, where Leicester inflicted Manchester City with a second successive defeat, third overall this season, giving Liverpool a seven-point advantage over the champions, and Tottenham Hotspur, who beat Bournemouth by 5-0, to also cut in front of Pep Guardiola’s team.
It’s been a very long time since Liverpool looked this good in the Premier League table. Now come two huge games as the Reds welcome Arsenal on Saturday and then travel to the Etihad on January 3rd, and if, IF they win both of them…
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s Arsenal next.
We Walk On.