In a season of superlatives for Liverpool as it pertains to the Premier League era, there is the growing sense of doom it may not be enough to win either a league title or lift the Champions League trophy.
And that does not even factor into Saturday’s emotionally charged showdown against former manager Rafa Benitez as Newcastle United look to throw a fatal spanner into Liverpool’s title hopes at St James’ Park.
This Premier League title race has been like no other since its 1992 beginning – this is the first time the top two teams in the table cleared 90 points. Liverpool (28-7-1) and Manchester City have waged a battle up and down England and Wales, with the teams alternating atop the table for the past six weeks.
But to steal a line from Marvel Comics hero Dr. Strange: “We’re in the end game now.”
Liverpool are one point back of City and need the reigning champions to drop points either at Leicester City against another ex-Liverpool manager – Brendan Rodgers – on Monday or at home in their season finale versus Brighton and Hove Albion while winning this match and their tricky finale at home versus Wolverhampton.
Jurgen Klopp’s side, however, enter this contest trying to shake off the hangover of their 3-0 loss at Barcelona in their first-leg Champions League semifinal Wednesday. It can be argued the scoreline reads harsh for Liverpool, who played brilliant football for stretches before Lionel Messi’s second-half brace in seven minutes may have fatally damaged the Reds’ hopes for a second straight finals appearance.
The Argentina international’s perfectly placed thunderbolt from 30 yards into the upper left 90 beyond a diving Alisson on 82 minutes completed the scoring. Liverpool were cruelly denied a coveted away goal shortly thereafter as Roberto Firmino’s shot was cleared off the line by Barcelona’s defense before Mohamed Salah struck the right post from close range with said clearance.
The defeat ended Liverpool’s 19-match unbeaten run (14-5-0) in all competitions, but midfielder James Milner knows his side have little time to wallow in the self-pity that could foster into another soul-crushing defeat that could cost them their first Premier League title.
“We’ve obviously got to bounce back first for the weekend, pick ourselves up again after this disappointment,” Milner told BT Sport after the match. “But I think we’ve all seen the heart in the dressing room before and the drive, the team spirit. We will be ready to go at the weekend.
“Hopefully we can get the result and get a bit of positive feeling going into the second leg.”
It is unknown if Firmino will re-enter the first XI for this match as he continues to deal with a small “muscle tear,” or whether Klopp will hold him out for Tuesday’s second leg at Anfield. One player more likely to return to first-team action is right back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who was passed over for Joe Gomez at the Camp Nou despite the latter having played just 30 minutes of competitive football since breaking his leg in December at Burnley.
Midfielder Naby Keita is out for the run-in however long it goes after being forced off in the first half Wednesday with an adductor injury deemed severe enough he will also miss the African Cup of Nations for Guinea. Regardless of who is on the pitch, all realise it is an all hands-on-deck scenario these next three – and potentially four – matches.
“We’ve got three, hopefully four, games left this season, and we need to give it everything, 100 per cent, in every single game because we know what’s at stake,” left back Andy Robertson told the club’s official website. “We know both of them are out of our hands now but look, it’s Liverpool – we fight for everything and we believe.
“We need to go to Newcastle, get our legs ready first and foremost and they are in a great run of form, so we need to be at our best there and then we can worry about Barcelona. But our focus is now on Newcastle.”
The man currently in charge of Newcastle United (11-9-16) knows a thing or two – or even three – about overturning three-goal deficits in the Champions League. Benitez remains forever loved in Merseyside for the Miracle at Istanbul in 2005 that stands as Liverpool’s fifth and most recent European title.
Yet the Spaniard could not do what Klopp is currently trying to do – guide Liverpool to the Premier League title. Benitez came closest in 2008-09, finishing runners-up and four points behind Manchester United despite entering the new year atop the table.
Benitez is now nearly a decade removed from his time at Anfield, and while he did enjoy most of his tenure at Liverpool, there is no doubt he will field Newcastle’s strongest side in their home finale and that his players are relishing the role of being potential spoilers.
“We are going to make it tough for them. They probably know that themselves,” centre back Jamaal Lascelles told the Daily Mirror. “It is not a nice fixture to come here, especially with our recent home form. We normally do finish off strongly – last season, we beat Chelsea 3-0.
“They will obviously be playing for the title, so they will be flying. It won’t be like the Chelsea game where I think they were done and they weren’t really playing well. We are going to make it tough. We are going to go for the win and we want to keep going until the very last game of the season.”
Liverpool’s visit also puts the ongoing public tete-a-tete between Benitez and club owner Mike Ashley on the backburner – the gaffer is out of contract after season’s end and trying to wrangle a financial commitment from Ashley to reinforce the squad.
Benitez has been vocally persistent about Ashley opening the pursestrings in the upcoming summer transfer window compared to previous seasons as Benitez has had the Magpies punching above their weight with back-to-back mid-table finishes.
Newcastle are unbeaten in three matches (2-1-0) after a 1-1 draw at Brighton and Hove Albion last Saturday. Ayoze Perez continued his purple patch of goals with his fifth in three games before being forced off late in the first half with a hip injury.
Perez does have eight goals in his last 10 matches, and Newcastle desperately need his playmaking with fellow midfielder Miguel Almiron already ruled out with a hamstring injury.
“I’m desperate to be fit for the Liverpool game,” Perez told Chronicle Live on Wednesday. “That’s in my mind right now; to get ready and fit for that game. Hopefully it’s just a kick that can be helped with a bit of ice and some rest, and then I’ll be ready for it.”
Liverpool ran out easy 4-0 winners at Anfield on Boxing Day as Benitez opted to rest Perez and Salomon Rondon due to the congested fixture list. Salah’s penalty three minutes into the second half sent the Reds on their way as Xherdan Shaqiri and Fabinho added second-half goals.
Liverpool are unbeaten in their last four versus Newcastle (2-2-0) but winless in their last four trips (0-2-2) to St James’ Park and 1-2-4 in their last seven league visits.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 0, Liverpool 2.
(Virgil Van Dijk/Mohamed Salah photo courtesy Liverpool FC official Twitter account)
(Rafa Benitez/Kenedy photo courtesy Serena Taylor via Newcastle United official website)