More frustration for Liverpool as Newcastle hold out for draw
Coutinho opens scoring with moment of magic but visitors again spurn chances
Newcastle 1 Liverpool 1
At the final whistle Rafael Benítez polished his spectacles and smiled knowingly. Newcastle United’s manager had succeeded in satisfying his current congregation while reminding a much-loved former public precisely what they lost when he left Anfield in 2010.
Liverpool fans rather like Jürgen Klopp but, well before the end, Benítez’s latest successor appeared to have succumbed to apoplexy.
Klopp – who at one point could be seen berating Jordan Henderson – knew his side should really have won, especially after they took the lead courtesy of a sublime goal from Philippe Coutinho.
Benítez though is far too good a tactician not to have recognised that Liverpool’s high defensive line was there to be unhinged and duly demonstrated exactly how to do it: Joselu’s equaliser ensured the points were shared.
On Sunday morning Tyneside had woken to reports that an unspecified number of parties, a Chinese consortium included, had signed non-disclosure agreements with Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s owner, ahead of a potential sale. Shortly before kick-off talk turned to a possible Middle Eastern buyout, when the businesswoman Amanda Staveley was spotted at St James’ Park.
Renowned as a deal-maker in football circles, Staveley has close links with Gulf investors and her presence prompted much excited chatter about a potential end to the Ashley regime. It is no secret the sports retail tycoon is anxious to sell up but he is notoriously awkward to do business with and the path to an exchange of contracts could well prove extremely tricky.
This looked a potentially hazardous engagement for Newcastle but, after a minute’s applause for the former chairman Freddy Shepherd, who died last week, and evocative chants of “Rafa Benítez” from both sets of supporters, the home side began brightly.
Considerably less cagey and deep-sitting than might have been expected, Benítez’s team featured two central midfield playmakers in Jonjo Shelvey and Mikel Merino. Shelvey certainly seemed out to impress against his former employers and, from one of his stellar passes, Matt Ritchie’s curling shot forced Simon Mignolet into a routine save.
If that represented cause for cautious Geordie optimism, it was severely tempered by some exquisite touches from Coutinho and pacey advances from Mohammed Salah.
Klopp’s players really should have scored during one bout of goalmouth bagatelle that involved Gini Wijnaldum, a Newcastle old boy, volleying against a post, Dejan Lovren seeing a shot cleared off the line and Sadio Mané dragging the rebound wide.
Even so, Rob Elliot had very little to do until he picked the ball out of his net in the wake of Coutinho’s splendid opener. Perhaps intent on demonstrating why Liverpool were right to turn down Barcelona’s stratospheric bids for him, Coutinho cut inside from the left and from around 25 yards out, directed a curving, rising right-foot shot through the gap between Elliot’s outstretched hand and the near post. It was a simply stunning finish – although Shelvey committed the cardinal sin of standing off Coutinho, to Benítez’s evident displeasure.
Klopp had clearly instructed his side to adopt a very high line and it was this tactic that offered Benítez’s players a route back into the game. Just as fans had begun questioning the decision to field Shelvey and Merino together and wondering whether Isaac Hayden was needed to break things up in midfield, Shelvey unleashed a glorious through-ball that bisected Dejan Lovren and Joël Matip to find Joselu.
With Mignolet advancing Joselu dithered alarmingly, permitting Matip to attempt a sliding tackle which merely succeeded in bouncing off the striker’s shin before rolling into the bottom corner.
As goals go it proved quite a contrast to Coutinho’s but highlighted the vulnerability of a Liverpool defence that had earlier looked susceptible in the face of Christian Atsu’s counterattacking pace. Beautifully weighted as Shelvey’s delivery was, there seemed to be acres of space between Lovren and Matip. If Klopp’s much-vaunted pressing game is proving less efficient than usual this season, the imbalance between attack and defence seems a fundamental concern.
It was time for Newcastle to retreat into their highly organised shell, do everything in their power to avoid destablisation by Salah’s quick feet and look to capitalise on the break.
They rode their luck when Ciaran Clark made a hash of clearing a Salah ball, permitting Daniel Sturridge to shoot and Elliot to save with an outstretched foot before Salah volleyed over the bar. The Egyptian’s expression suggested he knew he should have scored but Sturridge, too, would have expected to do better.
Their side might then have been reduced to 10 men but Joe Gomez escaped with a yellow card for a reckless-looking high challenge on Atsu, which saw his boot catching Atsu’s head as the pair challenged for a dropping ball.
If Craig Pawson’s decision relieved Klopp, the German’s increasingly manic gesticulations – as well as a lot of gurning – hinted at much more than run-of-the-mill frustration. Tellingly, Liverpool’s manager took advantage of a break in play as Dwight Gayle replaced Joselu to lambast Henderson in extraordinarily aggressive fashion.
Klopp’s angst only deepened as two of his substitutes, Dominic Solanke and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – on for the disappointing Sturridge and Mané – both directed diving headers off-target. Oxlade-Chamberlian, in particular, really should have taken his chance.