Premier League Joselu hands Newcastle draw with lucky strike to punish wasteful Liverpool
At the final whistle Rafael Benítez polished his spectacles and smiled. The Newcastle United manager had reminded Liverpool fans precisely what they lost when he left in 2010 while his latest successor at Anfield, Jürgen Klopp, appeared to have succumbed to apoplexy.
Klopp – who at one late juncture publicly berated Jordan Henderson, although the visiting captain was not alone in feeling the heat of his manager’s ire – knew his side really should have won.
Benítez, though, is far too good a tactician not to have recognised that Liverpool’s high defensive line was there to be unhinged and, refusing to panic in the wake of Philippe Coutinho’s superb opener, duly demonstrated precisely how to do it.
Once Jonjo Shelvey’s passing range had unpicked a slack defensive lock, Joselu’s scruffy equaliser ensured the points were shared. That goal also maintained an appreciable distance between Liverpool in seventh place and the leaders, Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s side are now seven points ahead.
Tynesiders have long dreamt of their club being the subject of a Manchester City-style takeover. On Sunday they woke to reports that an unspecified number of parties, a Chinese consortium included, had signed non-disclosure agreements with Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s owner, ahead of a potential sale. Shortly before kick-off, though, talk turned to a potential Middle Eastern buy-out when Amanda Staveley was spotted in the directors’ box.
Renowned as a deal maker in football circles, Staveley has close links with Gulf Arab investors and her presence prompted excited chatter about the potential end of Ashley’s regime. The sports retail tycoon appears eager to sell but he is a notoriously awkward man to do business with and the path between negotiations and an exchange of contracts could well prove extremely tricky.
Liverpool’s visit looked a similarly hazardous engagement for Newcastle but, after a minute’s applause for the former chairman Freddy Shepherd, who died last week, and evocative chants of “Rafa Benítez” from both sets of supporters, the home side began brightly.
Deployed alongside another playmaker, Mikel Merino, Shelvey certainly seemed out to impress against his former employers and, from one of his stellar passes, Matt Ritchie’s curling shot forced Simon Mignolet into an early save.
If that represented cause for cautious geordie optimism, it was severely tempered by some exquisite touches from Coutinho and Mohamed Salah’s pace suffused advances.
Klopp’s players really should have scored during one bout of goalmouth bagatelle involving Gini Wijnaldum, a Newcastle old boy, volleying against a post, Dejan Lovren seeing a shot cleared off the line and the underwhelming Sadio Mané dragging the rebound wide.
Even so, Rob Elliot had very little to do until he picked the ball out of his net following Coutinho’s splendid opener. Perhaps intent on demonstrating why Liverpool were right to turn down Barcelona’s stratospheric bids, Coutinho cut inside from the left and, from around 25 yards, directed a curving, rising right foot shot through the gap between Elliot’s outstretched hand and the near post. It was a simply stunning, world-class finish but significantly Shelvey committed the cardinal sin of standing off.
No matter, Klopp’s high line offered him a route to redemption. Just as fans began questioning the decision to field Shelvey and Merino together and wondering if Isaac Hayden needed to come on and start breaking things up a bit, Shelvey unleashed a glorious through-ball between Lovren and Joël Matip before finding Joselu.
With Mignolet advancing Joselu dithered alarmingly, permitting Matip to attempt a sliding tackle which merely succeeded in bouncing the ball off the striker’s shin before eventually rolling into the corner.
Once again the vulnerability of a Liverpool defence which seemed susceptible to Christian Atsu’s counterattacking pace had been highlighted. Beautifully weighted as Shelvey’s pass was, acres of space separated Lovren and Matip.
If Klopp’s much vaunted pressing game is proving less efficient than usual this season – although there were long stretches here when Newcastle were pinned back in their own half – the imbalance between attack and defence is the fundamental concern.
Once level, Benítez’s players retreated into their highly organised shell, did everything in their power to avoid destabilisation by Salah’s quick feet and aimed to capitalise on the break.
They rode their luck when Ciaran Clark made a hash of clearing a Salah ball, permitting Daniel Sturridge to shoot and Elliot to save with an outstretched foot before the Egyptian volleyed the fall-out over the bar. Both forwards should have scored.
Liverpool might subsequently have been reduced to 10 men but Joe Gomez escaped with a yellow card in the wake of a reckless-looking high challenge which left Atsu holding his head as the pair challenged for an aerial ball.
If that relieved Klopp, the German’s increasingly manic, and aggressive, technical area gesticulations hinted at much more than run-of-the-mill frustration. Clearly unhappy with the disappointing Sturridge, he used a break in play to berate a stony-faced Henderson.
Such angst only deepened as the substitutes Dominic Solanke and Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain directed diving headers off target. Oxlade-Chamberlain, especially, should have done much better but, unfortunately for Klopp, under-achievement is becoming a bit of a Liverpool habit.
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