Liverpool match verdict from Ian Doyle at St James’ Park after 2-0 win over Newcastle with four stars setting the standard once again.
The talk going into this game had centred around how Newcastle, their pockets bulging with the riches of their new owners, were on the cusp of becoming a serious rival to Liverpool in future years.
Come the full-time whistle here, though, Jurgen Klopp and his delighted players were content in offering a reminder they can still challenge the moneybags Magpies this season.
Having spent much of 2023 plumbing new depths, the last week has seen Liverpool finally splutter into life, hopes of Champions League qualification that mere days ago seemed fanciful now a genuine aspiration.
While only another single step after Monday’s derby win over Everton, this was nonetheless a sizeable one. Certainly, Newcastle will be looking nervously over their shoulders, the gap to them in fourth and Liverpool down to six points with Klopp’s side having a game in hand.
The Reds, too, know from past experience that such gaps can be bridged. With 16 Premier League matches remaining, the means as well as the opportunity is there.
Sure, there was the helping hand – literally – from Nick Pope, the Newcastle goalkeeper dismissed midway through the first half amid a crackling St James’ Park atmosphere.
But by then Liverpool were already two goals ahead after a beautifully-worked quickfire double from Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo claimed an initiative a game home side simply couldn’t wrench from the visitors’ grasp.
Key to that was another hugely impressive showing from Alisson Becker who, unlike his Magpies counterpart, was almost faultless. That the Reds are even still within touching distance of the top four after a difficult campaign owes much to the Brazilian’s ongoing excellent contribution.
Three big saves ensured only a second away clean sheet of the Premier League season and a mere third triumph on their travels, arguably ousting November’s win at Tottenham Hotspur as Liverpool’s best result on the road this campaign.
While far from perfect – Newcastle were offered too much encouragement when down to 10 men – there were, as against Everton five days earlier, plentiful positives for Klopp.
Mohamed Salah, involved in all the key moments, is approaching his best once more, and with Gakpo and in particular the livewire Nunez is starting to form a consistently potent understanding as a front triumvirate.
The influence of the returning Virgil van Dijk, making a first outing in six weeks as the only change from the derby in place of benched Joel Matip, became apparent in the second half as Newcastle regularly floundered up against the Dutchman. Overall, it’s now four clean sheets in six for the Reds, Joe Gomez again solid.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is once again becoming the playmaker-in-chief, his sumptuous pass sending Nunez away for the game-breaking moment. And with Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino gaining more minutes from the bench, Klopp’s side will approach the Champions League clash at home to Real Madrid with a much different mindset.
How Newcastle must be sick of the sight of Liverpool, still the only team to have beaten them in the Premier League this season. And Pope’s dismissal on 22 minutes ultimately defined this encounter.
Having claimed a Newcastle set-piece, Alisson sought out Salah with a trademark searching pass over the top that Pope came out to meet. However, having successfully executed a diving header when leaving his area shortly before, this time the keeper got it all wrong and ended up handling when prone on the floor. The red card was inevitable.
Interestingly, with Pope’s replacement here Martin Dubravaka cup-tied, former Liverpool shot-stopper Loris Karius could now start next week’s Carabao Cup final against Manchester United.
That Liverpool were at that stage already firmly in control with two superbly-crafted goals only made more curious the way in which they were then regularly pushed back by the pace and direct running of the home team.
The Reds’ opener on 10 minutes owed much to the vision and execution of Alexander-Arnold. After the visitors kept possession neatly near the halfway line, the right-back arced a pass with the outside of his right foot between the two Newcastle centre-backs for Nunez. The striker controlled with his chest and then thumped an emphatic finish beyond Pope from just inside the area.
The lead was doubled in similarly impressive fashion seven minutes later. After a smart Stefan Bajcetic turn – the young Spaniard once more composed throughout – put Liverpool on the attack, the ball made its way to Salah just outside the area, the Egyptian then flicking a left-footed pass over the top of the Newcastle defence where the onside Gakpo finished coolly.
Matters may have been different had, inside the first five minutes, Alisson not underlined his worth as the best one-on-one goalkeeper in the world when denying Miguel Almiron. The Brazilian later turned an Allan Saint-Maximin shot on to the woodwork as Newcastle sought a response before half-time, but could only watch as Dan Burn’s header struck the crossbar.
Newcastle offered plenty of enthusiasm in the second half but Liverpool, showing greater game intelligence, slowly gained a stranglehold, Nunez close after one barnstorming run although Alisson again was alert to smother a Callum Wilson effort late on. And with the home side tiring, substitute Jota almost netted a hat-trick in the closing moments.
Two goals, though, were more than enough. Next up, a point to prove against Real Madrid. And the Spaniards be warned – Liverpool are feeling much like their old selves again.