There’s always an element of love in the air when Rafa Benitez returns to Anfield. The Spaniard has undoubtedly written his name in Liverpool folklore but there was no time for sentiment on Saturday night when Newcastle visited Anfield. At 5:30, the reminiscing stopped and the toil began. Jürgen Klopp knew what to expect from the very first whistle as Newcastle set out to frustrate Liverpool’s front three. But goals from Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané ensured a vital three points to maintain the Reds’ momentum with nine games left, writes Umarah Naz.
The first forty minutes was a rinse and repeat cycle of Liverpool trying to find any gaps to penetrate Newcastle’s defence. Rafa’s Magpies were their usual disciplined self and succeeded in keeping the tremendous trio relatively quiet. Mané, Salah and Dejan Lovren all had chances to break the deadlock but Newcastle packed their box to keep them out. But it takes a gargantuan effort to keep out Mohamed Salah at the moment. The Egyptian scored his twenty–fourth league goal of the season when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain drove forward after fortuitously picking up the ball in midfield. Salah was perfectly placed and Oxlade-Chamberlain obliged by rolling the ball into his path. Martin Dubravka couldn’t connect and the ball went through his legs into the net. They say records are there to be broken and Salah seems to have taken on the challenge with plenty of games left to annihilate a few still.
Stoppage time at the end of the first–half produced a game-changing moment when Loris Karius was called into action with a superb save from a Mohammed Diame curler. Replays showed it was sure to go in had the German not stretched every sinew in his body to keep it out. Karius is showing game by game why Klopp bought him to the club and why he is number one, slowly winning over sceptical fans in the process. That save provided Liverpool with the impetus to push on in the second-half as opposed to having to start the process again. Saves are just as important as goals, right?
It didn’t take long for Liverpool to double their lead after the break. Eleven minutes in, Emre Can, Roberto Firmino, Mané and Oxlade-Chamberlain all played their part in some delectable build-up play. Glorious one-touch football led to Mané surpassing his goal tally for last season whilst on his backside. Remember that Mané who hasn’t been playing well? Yes, him.
Anything that Newcastle had to offer was cleaned up by Liverpool at the back well. Dejan Lovren returned to partner Virgil Van Dijk in the heart of defence while Klopp continues to figure out who to play alongside the Dutchman. Lovren seems to be winning that battle ahead of Joel Matip for now with the Croatian looking much more confident and more like the player Liverpool had hoped he’d be when they signed him. Karius adds another layer of protection to the defensive line and, who knows, Klopp may just be beginning to put his defensive woes behind him. And with Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold revelling in their full-back roles, the future looks bright. Not forgetting Joe Gomez, too.
Rafa Benitez left Anfield empty handed on Saturday but he came with the right gameplan. Liverpool are a tough prospect especially at home this season. The fact that Newcastle managed to keep the free-scoring Reds at two goals has to be a positive and could come in handy should the relegation fight boil down to goal difference. A thrashing would have damaged much more than just confidence.
In an important week coming up for Liverpool, the last two home wins would have come as a relief to Klopp. These were, after all, the kinds of games that Liverpool were drawing or losing not so long ago. This rhythm is significant with a second leg Champions League game against Porto on Tuesday and an almighty clash against Manchester United on Saturday afternoon at Old Trafford. The CL game should be a formality with Liverpool holding a five goal lead from the first leg. A quarter-final in the prestigious competition beckons. The league game versus United is effectively a battle for second place; win it and Liverpool hold high aspirations of claiming the runners-up spot over their hated rivals. It’s good to be a Liverpool fan right now. And it’s not over yet.