Newcastle 1 Joselu 36’
Liverpool 1 Coutinho 28’
Like a stuck record, Liverpool continue to stutter and stumble over the same parts of the same song. It doesn’t quite seem to matter who starts, who the opposition is, or where they play. The Reds continue to break land speed records going forward, only to be stuck in neutral when it comes to putting the ball in the net. Throw in the inevitable head-scratching wobble at the back, and this match becomes a perfect summation of Liverpool’s season so far.
It was clear from the opening whistle that this would not be a stroll in the park for the visitors, not that anyone expected that to be the case. Newcastle, as is their habit, matched Liverpool in verve and aggression from the start. Much of the hosts’ forward momentum came from former Red Jonjo Shelvey, who was making a return to the starting lineup since the first day of the season, and from Mikel Merino, on loan from Borussia Dortmund.
In the fourth minute, Shelvey’s attempt from distance led to the first half-chance of the day, as the shot was charged down, allowing Mohamed Salah to jump in and initiate a counterattack at the usual breathtaking speed. Salah found Sadio Mané in support, but instead of shooting, the Senegalese forward tried unsuccessfully to feed the ball back to its source. It was both thrilling and frustrating, and unfortunately for Liverpool, this was going to be a theme for the rest of their day.
With the Reds’ central midfield unable to find a coherent rhythm or a sustained spell of possession, the threat would once again have to come from speed on the wings. Soon, it was Joe Gomez’s turn to wriggle out of trouble and set Salah free yet again. The Egyptian winger burst past a number of defenders and looked free on goal, but Deandre Yedline arrived just in time and made just enough of a nuisance of himself to throw Salah off.
If Liverpool supporters were already starting to suspect this would not be their day, ample evidence arrived soon after. From a corner, a sublime flick by Gini Wijnaldum looked goalbound, but the ball came back off a post. In the ensuing sequence, the ball ping ponged its way to a number of red shirts, but nobody found the space or composure to make a decisive effort, and the stalemate persisted.
The breakthrough came via a familiar source. Just before the half-hour mark, Newcastle “allowed” Philippe Coutinho to receive the ball in his favorite spot coming in from the left. With a number of defenders in the vicinity, the Brazilian nudged the ball a half-yard past Shelvey and unleashed a curling effort past Rob Elliot’s flailing arms. It was a lead, and one that was just about deserved based on the showing thus far.
The lead did not, however, persist for very long. Newcastle came back strongly after conceding, and Liverpool, to their credit, soaked up the pressure confidently while crafting opportunities of their own whenever the hosts lost possession up the pitch. When the equalizer came, it was arguably against the run of play. From deep in his own territory, Shelvey spotted Joselu lurking between Liverpool’s central defenders and promptly set the Spanish forward free.
Woefully out of position when Shelvey’s pass was made, one of the defenders - Joël Matip - was still able to race back to trouble Joselu. Matip’s attempt to nick the ball away ended up richocheting off the striker, sending the ball rolling slowly towards the open goalmouth. Lovren had taken his foot off the pedal, and was unable to arrive in time to clear the ball off the line. Parity had been restored.
The remainder of the first half fizzled into an anticlimax as Newcastle tried to unsettle Liverpool even further, while Jürgen Klopp’s side seemed stuck trying to decide whether to commit numbers forward in search of a restored lead or preserve the scoreline for the second half. Whether by choice or not, they ended up doing the latter.
Klopp decided against making changes at the half, despite a few players having faded into anonymity after a positive opening spell. One of those players was Daniel Sturridge, who had been handed a rare Premier League start over Roberto Firmino. Within minutes of the restart, Sturridge’s quick feet and quickness of thought led to an excellent shooting opportunity, but his effort was denied and Salah’s followup shot nowhere near being on target.
Newcastle, for their part, looked confident without really threatening to take control of the match. They did, however, remind Liverpool more than once that they have their own set of pacy counterattacking options. Christian Atsu looked briefly to have gotten the better of Gomez on the left and was eyeing an isolated Mignolet, but Matip was once again able to get back in time to trouble the attacker. This time, luck favored the Reds defender and the ball was bundled out for a goal kick.
As lively as they looked for long spells in the first, Liverpool looked somewhat adrift in the second half. Sensing the need to do something, Klopp summoned Dominic Solanke and Roberto Firmino on for Mané and Sturridge. There was an immediate response. Though still young, Solanke’s play has a blend of directness and guile that is reminiscent of his former Chelsea teammate Diego Costa. Elsewhere, Firmino looked to be his usual troublesome self, but was stymied in part by Newcastle starting to close up shop.
Despite having to clear a headed effort off the line, the hosts ended the match in the ascendancy. They were able, for the most part, to frustrate Liverpool’s attempts to find a breakthrough, and had a handful of chances of their own from set pieces deep in Liverpool territory with their visitors increasingly desperate and with the clock winding down - circumstances that typically portend a late conceded goal by the Reds.
Both managers rolled the dice for the final phases of the match. Rafa Benitez sought to jangle some nerves by bringing on a former Liverpool tormentor in Dwight Gayle, while Klopp replaced a tiring Salah with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Neither move was particularly successful, and the referee soon called time on yet another frustrating outing for the Reds. Next up for Klopp’s men are José Mourinho’s high-flying United side. No pressure.