By Padraig O’Callaghan – @AGameOfTwoHalfz
Liverpool travel to St. James’ Park for a must-win game against Newcastle United for the penultimate game of the 2018/19 season, on the back of a somewhat demoralising week.
Newcastle have already secured their status in the Premier League next season, an unlikely feat giving their total of three points after the 10th matchday. Winning seven points from their last three games have seen them climb the table up to 13th place, 11 points clear of 18th place Cardiff City.
The past week couldn’t have gone much worse for Liverpool, Manchester City reclaimed top spot after a 1-0 win over Burnley, their winner from Sergio Aguero’s shot got cleared from the goal line, but technology showed it past by only a couple of inches.
To make matters worse, their Champions League journey is hanging by a thread after an arguably undeserved 3-0 loss to Barcelona at Camp Nou.
Newcastle are in the form you would expect for a mid-table side, losing against the top six and earning a couple of points from the rest of the league. Their form against the top six at home has seen them lose four and win one – against Liverpool’s title rivals Manchester City. Two defensive lapses fell in favour of Newcastle that game, whereby they scored with their only two shots on target but were largely untested by the Citizens.
In their defeats to the rest of the top six at home, they have at most conceded two goals in each of their four games – a deep drilled defensive block keeps the difference between the two teams as low as possible giving Newcastle a chance to gain a point or three.
During the month of April, in the five games they played they won two, lost two and drew one. The seven points they picked up came in the latter half of the month after losing to Arsenal and Crystal Palace. Ayoze Perez then entered the picture and almost single-handedly won them their seven points. The attacking midfielder scored five goals in the past three games including a hat-trick against Southampton.
Liverpool’s unbeaten run which stretched back 20 games came to an end against Barcelona in the Champions League. The 3-0 score line flattered the La Liga Champions. Liverpool were arguably the better team in the 90 minutes but once we conceded a second, we had to press for an away goal which left us open at the back.
While the result was disheartening, huge positives could be taken from it. Jurgen Klopp said we couldn’t have played much better, and he is right – not many teams go to the Nou Camp and dominate proceedings to such an extent where Barcelona are pinned in their own half. Our shooting boots were left on Merseyside though as Liverpool fluffed chance after chance which only encouraged the opposition.
In domestic form, Liverpool have won their last seven league games. After failing to keep a clean sheet for four consecutive games we now have three in three. These clean sheets came in victories over Chelsea, Cardiff and Huddersfield.
Our last outing saw us comprehensively beat an already relegated Huddersfield Town team by five goals. Naby Keita opened proceedings after 15 seconds, slotting in after Liverpool won the ball from a high press. Sadio Mané gave Liverpool breathing space after a period of sustained pressure from the visitors heading in a cross from Robertson. Then, it was Trent’s turn to have a hand in a goal, playing through Salah who lobbed Lossl to give Liverpool a 3-0 lead at half time.
Mané got his second goal, heading home from a sumptuous ball from Jordan Henderson before Salah extended his lead at the top scoring charts tapping in from another Andy Robertson cross.
Rafa Benitez is to make do with out three first team players – record signing Miguel Almiron, Sean Longstaff and centre back Florian Lejeune. The aforementioned Ayoze Perez is a doubt and would be a serious miss should he miss out but he should make at least the matchday squad.
Martin Dubravka has been excellent since he joined from Sparta Prague. The Slovakian has kept 10 clean sheets this season and has conceded just 22 goals in 18 home games.
Rafa usually utilises a three at the back formation, Fabian Schar, Jamaal Lascelles and Fernandez are the go to back three, though Lascelles missed the draw against Brighton due to unknown reasons. The English international who has been linked with a move to Liverpool in recent seasons should return.
Starting at wing-back will be Matt Ritchie and ex-Liverpool loanee Javi Manquillo. The midfield four will consist of the man in-form Ayoze Perez, Atsu, Ki and Diame.
Salomon Rondon has excelled in a lone striker role this season and has pitched in with nine goals. The Venezuelan will certainly be a handful with excellent movement in the box and heading ability. His free kicks have improved in recent weeks and we should look to avoid fouls near the penalty area.
Both Roberto Firmino and Trent Alexander-Arnold should return to the first eleven after the duo started on the bench against Barcelona during the week. Naby Keita went off with an injury and Jurgen Klopp announced the Guinean will miss the remainder of the season.
Keita played such an influential role in recent weeks and he will be a big miss, meaning Oxlade-Chamberlain could play more minutes than he was expected to.
Alisson Becker could do nothing about the three goals he conceded on Wednesday, including a ridiculous free-kick scored by Lionel Messi. If you put his opposite number, ter Stegen in goal alongside him, the duo wouldn’t have got close such was the quality of the free kick. The Brazilian will be hoping for an easier time on Saturday evening.
Joe Gomez will keep his place in the starting line-up, he will replace Joel Matip in central defence to build up his fitness once more. Andy Robertson has a joint record number of assists for a defender, with two games left you would be backing him to beat it.
Jurgen Klopp was left in the undesirable position to play all five of his fully fit midfielders in Spain, with such an important part of the season remaining, the German would have preferred if he could have left one or two on the bench.
With that in mind, I think both Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum will start alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who will make his first competitive start in over a year. Divock Origi will come in for Sadio Mane, the Belgian will start alongside Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino.
Last five results
06-12-2015: Newcastle United v Liverpool 2-0 – Premier League
23-04-2016: Liverpool v Newcastle United 2-2 – Premier League
01-10-2017: Newcastle United v Liverpool 1-1 – Premier League
03-03-2018: Liverpool v Newcastle United 2-0 – Premier League
26-12-2018: Liverpool v Newcastle United 4-0 – Premier League
Jurgen Klopp should expect a strong reaction after the disappointing result midweek. If we can score a couple of early goals before half time, then players can be rested ahead of the second leg in which a miracle is needed to progress. Barcelona already have the privilege of being able to rest players, so its important Liverpool don’t make hard work of this game.
Newcastle away is always a difficult tie, the Reds have failed to win at St. James park in their last four visits, losing twice. That being said, Liverpool should be far too strong for this Newcastle side even if they make a couple of changes.
I’m going for 3-1 Liverpool win. Going with a 2-0 lead into half time, scoring an early second half goal before Newcastle score a consolation.
Final Score: Newcastle 1 (Rondon) – Liverpool 3 (Firmino, Henderson, Salah)