Liverpool fire themselves back into top-four race on nightmare evening for Newcastle

Nick Pope is sent off after handling the ball outside the box (AFP via Getty Images)
Nick Pope is sent off after handling the ball outside the box (AFP via Getty Images)

The celebration turned to consternation for Newcastle, the memories of their past to the worry about the immediate future, the tributes to one of their greatest servants preceding their worst day of the Premier League season. It would have been Sir Bobby Robson’s 90th birthday but it turned into an auspicious occasion for Jurgen Klopp.

A week that could have finished off their challenge for a top-four finish three months early instead sees their hopes resurrected and them rejuvenated. A side who had lost their last three away league games in hapless fashion instead backed up a Merseyside derby victory by ending the longest unbeaten run in any of the top five European divisions. Klopp has Virgil van Dijk fit again, his forwards scoring again and, perhaps, a glimpse of the kind of momentum that has carried them a long way on plenty of previous times.

But for Newcastle, a season’s fine work threatened to be undone in a disastrous 12 minutes. It was doubly damaging, their hopes of a first major trophy since 1969 dented when Nick Pope was dismissed. One of the stars and the signings of the season will miss the Carabao Cup final as the punishment will prove bigger than the crime. Pope had not had to retrieve the ball from the back of his net twice in a game since visiting Anfield in August: he did in his 22-minute cameo as Liverpool became the first top-flight side to overcome Newcastle since they did, the best part of six months and 18 games ago. Yet while that relied on a 98th-minute winner, this was decided in an explosive first quarter. Taking six points from Newcastle means the gap between them is down to six and, in the final reckoning, it could prove crucial.

Liverpool’s season has been marred by inconstancy but notable for some major scalps – Manchester City, Napoli, Tottenham – and Newcastle became the latest as the last unbeaten home record in the Premier League fell. Liverpool did not excel throughout but, after a start of blistering pace, they did not need to. Mohamed Salah felt irrepressible and Klopp’s side, who have conceded early all too often this season, had the unusual experience of being two goals to the good after 17 minutes.

Meanwhile, Newcastle had not even trailed on Tyneside since September but, after months of frugality, they were ripped apart. The usually terrific Kieran Trippier played Liverpool onside for both goals; in both cases, the visitors exploited the channel between him and Fabian Schar.

And suddenly Klopp has three in-form forwards again: Salah and Cody Gakpo scored and Darwin Nunez assisted against Everton while, at St James’ Park, each of the trio again either scored or made a goal. After six goalless games to begin his Liverpool career, the Dutchman has two in two. After 27 shots in the Premier League without finding the net since the World Cup, the Uruguayan struck in clinical fashion.

After the compendium of misses, a rasping half-volley was dispatched past Pope when Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has doubled his tally of top-flight assists for the season in a week, curled a ball towards him and, with a combination of foot and chest, Nunez controlled the ball. Then came a second delightful pass, dinked from Salah to Gakpo. His assured finish meant he suddenly has scoring form.

Gody Gakpo celebrates after scoring Liverpool’s second (Action Images via Reuters)
Gody Gakpo celebrates after scoring Liverpool’s second (Action Images via Reuters)

Liverpool nevertheless had grounds to be grateful to their goalkeeper. Alisson produced a hugely influential performance: a fourth-minute save from Miguel Almiron proved invaluable while, when Newcastle were two goals and a man down, he averted a fightback by tipping Alexander Isak’s shot on to the bar and then, with eight minutes remaining by denying Callum Wilson. His impact was felt at the other end, too: the Brazilian started the move that led to the second goal and whose punt forward, in a tale of two goalkeepers, led to Pope’s dismissal. The England international left his box to confront an advancing Salah, tried to head the ball, misjudged it and ended up handling. Enter Martin Dubravka, who did well to deny Nunez his second but who, after his loan at Manchester United, is ineligible for the Carabao Cup final. It meant the 20-year-old Elliot Anderson’s maiden Premier League start was curtailed, as he was sacrificed after the sending off.

Reduced to 10 men, Newcastle showed a defiance that could have brought a greater reward. First Isak and then Dan Burn hit the bar, the giant defender heading Kieran Trippier’s corner against the woodwork. After the break, Isak shot wide on the turn, Schar headed past the post when he probably should have scored. Substitutes combined when Anthony Gordon set up Wilson and Alisson saved.

Their efforts were testament to their fitness and spirit alike and brought a test Van Dijk passed on his first appearance for seven weeks while Diogo Jota, another on the comeback trail, was denied by a goal-line clearance from Burn. But Eddie Howe suffered a 15th defeat in 17 games against Liverpool and could fear a different kind of loss. Because now Liverpool threaten to chase down Newcastle. As they prepare to face Real Madrid, they have two routes back into the Champions League.