Two conclusions as Liverpool revive top-four hopes and Newcastle’s Pope suffers Carabao heartbreak
We probably should have done 16 Conclusions on this game, but alas you’re going to have to settle for two.
Both are pretty important, and both were pretty much locked in after 22 frantic and intoxicating minutes of action at a febrile St James’ Park.
Conclusion one: Liverpool are right back in the top-four race.
Conclusion two: Newcastle keeper Nick Pope is out of the Carabao Cup final and Loris Karius is in.
Both of those things are absolutely wild in their own way, but let’s deal with them in turn.
First up, Liverpool. Well done, Liverpool. Despite a near season-long commitment to being very crap they are now firmly in the picture for the top four. Given Newcastle’s now quite long-running struggles to pick up victories and the fact Spurs are Spurs, you could even argue that a resurgent if still deeply questionable Liverpool might even now be favourites for fourth.
They’re only six points off the Champions League places with a game in hand (which would be finessed to seven points with two games in hand if Spurs beat West Ham tomorrow) after maintaining their record as the only team to beat Newcastle in the Premier League, but now doing it twice.
Go back a bit further, and Liverpool are now responsible for three of Newcastle’s last four Premier League defeats. Manchester City claim the other. So this is very clearly the level Newcastle are at now.
And the really weird thing about this game, one that Newcastle had basically lost in catastrophically self-inflicted fashion with only 22 minutes on the clock is this: Newcastle actually played quite well. Apart from the three terrible moments inside those first 22 minutes when they were absolute shite.
Which, it turns out, is a bad number of terrible moments to have in such a short amount of time.
For a team whose success this season has been built on being incredibly difficult to beat even when not playing well, it was deeply discombobulating to see them so very easy to beat despite playing well.
They started at a hundred miles an hour, roared on by the crowd. The idea mooted by one national newspaper that this fixture has become some kind of El Toxico was always a far-fetched nonsense, but this was a big game with much riding on it and the atmosphere was incredible in a first 10 minutes where Newcastle ran Liverpool off their feet.
And then Liverpool took the lead. Both Liverpool’s goals combined three ingredients. A world-class assist, a great touch and finish from a maligned Liverpool forward, and inexplicably poor positioning by assorted members of what had until today been the Premier League’s best and most organised defence.
Kieran Trippier was out of position to play Darwin Nunez onside for Trent Alexander-Arnold’s delicious throughball, while Pope – for neither the last nor costliest time – found himself heading to the wrong place at the wrong time. It was like he expected Darwin to miss the ball, a not entirely unreasonable expectation given what we’ve seen but with one crucial caveat: one can never confidently predict what Darwin will do.
Here, Darwin brought the ball down with such expert precision before absolutely Shearering the ball past the scrambling Pope that a lengthy VAR check ensued to ensure he hadn’t handled the ball. He was nowhere near doing so, but the refusal to accept the only alternative – that his first touch had been unimaginably, delicately, precisely perfect – was again understandable.
Soon after, Mo Salah clipped another perfect pass in for Gakpo to exploit the baffling amounts of space suddenly to be found behind Sven Botman and Fabian Schar and prod the ball past the onrushing Pope.
A Newcastle side that hadn’t conceded more than once in any Premier League game since the reverse fixture at Anfield in August found themselves 2-0 down with barely a quarter of an hour on the clock. And things were about to get far worse.
You would have to have a heart of pure stone not to feel some sympathy for Pope, who has been one of the best players not just at Newcastle but anywhere this season. Being sent off in the game before the Carabao Cup final at Wembley is a horribly unlucky quirk of fate and it feels deeply cruel for a player to miss out on that kind of career high-point for a red card that falls squarely under the category of twatty rather than malicious.
But at the same time… what on earth was Pope thinking? Sometimes the criticism of a player will be that he “gave the referee a decision to make”. Pope didn’t even do that when he came careening out of his area and both handled the ball and wiped out Salah. It was two red-card offences for the price of one. And it was so, so costly.
And not just because of the Carabao Cup final. This game was absolutely not in the bag for Liverpool at 2-0. Maths may have a bit to say about the oft-stated claim that it’s the most dangerous lead in the game, but it was certainly far from a comfortable one for Jurgen Klopp’s side. Newcastle’s uncharacteristic defensive uncertainty was being paired with the most convincing and lively attacking display they’ve produced for quite some time.
Even after the red card, Alisson was still called into frequent action. Allan Saint-Maximin was tremendous, even earning the man of the match nod from Sky Sports. Were this vintage Liverpool you’d be thinking they probably had extra gears in reserve should they be needed; our suspicion is that they were flat out here and still being tested by the 10 men of Newcastle.
Which means there’s two ways of looking at this for both teams. Liverpool scored two fine goals and secured a result that potentially saves their league season; defeat today would have been hugely damaging. But they still don’t quite look right.
Newcastle for the most part played better than they have at any other time in a run of five draws in their last six league games. But they did the one thing they’ve done well throughout that run really alarmingly badly, and the problem with a run of draws is that it can sometimes only take one defeat to make it look like a bit of a crisis. Especially when your next league game is against Manchester City.
But while the top-four machinations are crucial, it is the impact on next week’s Carabao Cup final that felt instantly the most important element of the day.
We’re all fond of narrative, but Karius playing in a cup final because of a red card picked up against Liverpool is almost too much even for us. And that’s before we even start on the fact that Newcastle’s actual second-choice goalkeeper Martin Dubravka, who did admirably well here for 68 minutes with only nine men in front of him, is cup-tied for the final against Manchester United because he played in earlier rounds when on loan at… Manchester United.
As for Karius, the Carabao Cup final will be his first appearance for an English team since the 2018 Champions League final. He’s absolutely guaranteed to put in a cup-winning masterclass of a performance or chuck three Marcus Rashford shots in his own net. No other outcome is possible.