There will always be a fondness for Rafa Benitez for the Miracle at Istanbul that resulted in Liverpool’s fifth and most recent European title.
But with current manager Jurgen Klopp actively on the prowl for No. 6 as well as a long-awaited first Premier League title, sentimentality will give way to the business of getting points on Boxing Day as the table-topping Reds welcome their former manager and Newcastle United to Anfield.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
“I have known him for a long time,” Klopp said regarding Benitez during Monday’s pre-match press conference. “I knew him before I came to Liverpool and he always did a brilliant job. He was very successful, he was outstanding at Napoli, and won different things. That makes him a special person.
“I don’t know too much about Newcastle; from time to time I read a little bit and I heard nobody was really happy with the amount of money they had to sign players. But Rafa is too experienced to carry that through a full season.”
Liverpool (15-3-0) are enjoying their best start in Premier League history and are atop the table at Christmas for the first time since their last legitimate title challenge in 2013-14. That side, however, are the only one of the past nine to lead at the holiday and not see the job through.
Though that run ended with the Reds second-best to Chelsea due to Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip in the loss to the Blues and their 3-3 draw the following match at Crystal Palace, there is hope for better things this time around.
Palace, in fact, gave Liverpool a boost by beating reigning champions Manchester City on Saturday, a result that left the Reds four points clear as they had won 2-0 at Wolverhampton the night before. Mohamed Salah scored in the first half and set up a goal for defender Virgil Van Dijk in the second as the Reds were not at their best but still found enough to see out the match against the best promoted side of the three.
“Obviously scoring a goal is a bonus and obviously a very proud moment and hopefully there’s more to come, but I’m more focused on winning games,” Van Dijk told Liverpool’s official website after scoring his first league goal and his first with the club since scoring against Everton on his debut in last season’s FA Cup.
“We are very happy and at the end I am happy with the win. In the first half we were a bit sloppy at times, but second half we did it well and we are very happy that we won.”
With squad rotation a key part of the holiday fixture list, Klopp is hopeful right back Trent Alexander-Arnold will be available after missing the last two matches with an ankle injury. Midfielder Naby Keita picked up knocks to his rib and foot in the win over Wolves but is at least expected to be available for selection.
Klopp has used midfielder James Milner at right back in place of Alexander-Arnold, but in all likelihood, the manager will wind up using his 11th different midfield combination in 19 league contests as he has plenty of options at his disposal in Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, Giorginio Wijnaldum, and Fabinho.
Benitez could only dream of such depth and quality as he again toils in a bid to scrap his way through to keep Newcastle (4-5-9) in the top flight. The Magpies were held to a scoreless draw Saturday versus Fulham, making them the first team to fail to score against the Cottagers in league play this term.
It also continued a run of little reward at St James’ Park, where Newcastle have taken just seven of a possible 30 points. Newcastle did not register a shot on target against the last-place club, drawing the ire of the home supporters, and with a daunting fixture list that includes both Manchester clubs and Chelsea among their next six matches starting with this contest, the Spaniard is already in a survive and advance mode.
“I know what is coming and I know where we are,” Benitez ominously told The Times as his team enters this match five points clear of the drop. “You can see the team is trying a lot of things but still it is not enough. A game like that is a confirmation of what I know. Even if we strengthen in January, it will be a miracle if we stay up.”
Benitez’s modus operandi when playing against the Big Six is to use a five-man backline and try to hit on the counter. It has succeeded in the sense Newcastle have done an excellent job in limiting the damage against these clubs – the Magpies suffered only a minus-5 goal difference in those games – but it also has created a stunning amount of agony among supporters.
Newcastle have been tied 1-1 in three of those matches only to lose two of them with goals on 83 minutes and later. They were also two to the good at Manchester United before contriving a way to lose all of those matches along with a 2-1 reverse at Arsenal.
It is possible Benitez restores DeAndre Yedlin at right back after the American came off the bench versus Fulham, and Yoshinori Muto could be in line for a start after not playing Saturday.
Liverpool ran out 2-0 winners in last term’s corresponding fixture as Salah and Sadio Mane scored in a 15-minute span bridging halftime. Anfield has been a house of horrors for Newcastle, who are 0-4-18 in their last 22 visits – all in league play – since a 2-0 victory in their first Premier League match there in 1994.
Per Bet365, Liverpool are staggering 1/6 favourites to run their domestic winning streak to eight matches and at least retain their four-point advantage atop the table. Newcastle United are 18/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline, and there are 15/2 odds on the Magpies stealing a point from Anfield for just the fifth time in 23 trips.
Despite what will obviously be a defensive-oriented Newcastle lineup, oddsmakers do not seem all that convinced goals will not be scored. There are 4/9 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 7/4 for not reaching that threshold. There is also an expectation Liverpool will record a 12th domestic clean sheet, with 4/7 odds on one team not scoring compared to 5/4 odds for both teams to score.
All told, there are 14 Liverpool players who have better odds of scoring the match’s first goal than the top Newcastle option of Rondon at 18/1, and the Venezuela international shares those odds with Liverpool’s Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson. Salah leads the line at 13/5 to open the scoring for a second straight contest, with Daniel Sturridge second at 3/1.
A trio of Reds — Mane, Bobby Firmino and Divock Origi — are all 4/1, while Xherdan Shaqiri lurks another step back at 5/1.
For any-time goal-scorers, Salah and Sturridge are heavy favourites to get one past Dubravka at 4/7 and 4/6, respectively, while Mane, Firmino and Origi are also better than even money options at 20/21. Shaqiri is just off that standard at 6/5, and Rondon and Joselu lead Newcastle’s list at 6/5 to score over the course of 90 minutes.
The Chrismtas miracle is not that Liverpool are atop the table, but rather that they actually have a one-match margin of error. If Klopp’s side can hold that ahead of their Jan. 3 showdown at the Etihad, the pressure will be to simply gain a point like City did at Anfield as opposed to hunt out a victory.
The holiday fixtures begin what will be a scrutinised rotation for Liverpool, whose midfield will continue to be fluid from match to match over the next few weeks. In this match, however, patience will be the watchword as Liverpool could end up with 80 percent possession as they look to unlock what will be a stubborn two lines of Newcastle players while making sure Rondon does not get free for a moment of magic.
In attack for the Reds, it would not be surprising to see Firmino dropped to the bench for this contest given his struggling form. Again, Klopp does not lack for options as Sturridge would be the most likely replacement if Liverpool stay in a 4-3-3. Another possibility is to have Shaqiri in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 with Salah either to his right or leading the line depending on where he lines up Sturridge.
For Newcastle, this has all the feel of “Groundhog Day” in which they will be difficult to break down and hold out for an hour before the wheels come off. Not having Ki could prove problematic as Isaac Hayden will likely be preferred to Jonjo Shelvey, but this is another case where Benitez will set up to limit the damage — though it may not be as successful as in the first five matches against the Big Six.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 2, Newcastle United 0.