WHEN Liverpool drew at Manchester City recently both teams went their separate ways to complete their seasons and this presented a good opportunity for everyone to assess the outstanding fixtures, looking for potential stumbling blocks.
For City, this weekend’s trip to Leeds stood out as a particularly tough test, situated as it is between two Champions League semi-final legs. Regarding Liverpool’s commitments, two out of the three problem games have already been successfully navigated, in United and a blood-and-thunder derby. Now only Spurs at home remains of their perceived big challenges, because Tottenham always give the Reds something to think about.
How odd that Newcastle have been overlooked twice-over, with the Magpies still to play both title contenders, starting with their hosting of Jurgen Klopp’s men at St James’ Park this Saturday lunchtime. Since being transformed under Eddie Howe – and buying well in January – Newcastle boast the third best form in recent months of anyone in the top-flight. They’ve won six at home on the bounce and accrued 31 points from a possible 42. They could well be the kingmakers of 2021/22.
Not that Howe will especially care about the destination of this season’s league trophy. His sole objective is to land a top ten finish while overseeing the continued improvement of his side who look dramatically unfamiliar to the sorry collective he inherited.
At the back Fabian Schar has been superb, as too Emil Krafth filling in for the injured Kieran Trippier. In the middle Jonjo Shelvey has artfully held everything together in alliance with Joelinton whose evolution has been biblical. New signing Bruno Guimaraes meanwhile has scored four in eight and as impressive as that is for a player largely burdened with creative duties, even his goals pale to the Brazilian’s overall performances. His clever touches and 360 vision has turned a good, functional team into an expansive and inventive one capable of unlocking the very best defences around.
🔎 𝗜𝗻 𝗙𝗼𝗰𝘂𝘀
Another wonderful midfield display from @brunoog97! 🇧🇷
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) April 21, 2022
Furthermore, even if team spirit, togetherness and confidence are hazy metrics that are impossible to accurately measure, it’s fair to say that Newcastle have all three in abundance right now. It’s there in the post-match celebratory videos that show even squad players looking ecstatic. It’s there in the flowing, adventurous football that has reignited the fans.
All of which makes it utterly redundant to compare this fine and dangerous side to the relegation battlers of pre-Christmas. In the latter half of 2021 Newcastle were conceding 2.2 goals per game. In the first third of 2022 that has plummeted to 0.8. They’re chalk and cheese and that’s focusing only on defence.
But this is Liverpool nonetheless and how many times has it been suspected they might encounter difficulties only for Mo Salah and co to quickly quash that illusion? In six of their last eight league outings, the Reds have scored inside the opening half an hour, strikes that effectively ended that afternoon’s contest because as much as the trope persists that Liverpool’s back-line can be ‘got at’ the results do not bear this out. Only City have managed to breach them since Norwich gave themselves the shock of their lives by scoring at Anfield back in February.
More so, Liverpool have gone in front on 29 occasions this season, more than any other side. They went on to lose precisely none of them.
Staying with Salah, the short-priced favourite for this season’s Player of the Year merit has previously scored six in eight against the Magpies and all told this campaign has converted over a quarter of his team’s league haul, a haul incidentally that puts other campaigns in the shade. After 33 games last term Liverpool had scored 55. In their title-winning year it was 72 by this stage. Presently, they’ve fired home 85, a remarkable ratio of 2.5 goals per game that doesn’t allow their opponents to catch their breath or accumulate any hope.
Yet an intriguing aspect to this intriguing clash does offer the hosts the slimmest of hopes in the form of Liverpool’s Champions League aspirations potentially complicating Klopp’s team selection.
In the prior round against Benfica, a comfortable first-leg lead afforded the German the opportunity to go full strength once again at the Etihad, then rest seven starters the Wednesday after. Even assuming they can claim an early advantage at the expense of Villarreal this week will he dare take the same approach given their close proximity to a major final? And what if the La Liga side depart Anfield with a point or better? So intense are the games right now, and so relentless, that it’s exceedingly unlikely that Klopp will try and power through to the very end.
Something will have to give and don’t be overly surprised to see one or two familiar names residing on the bench in the north-east.