Saturday, 27 April 2013

Oh The Memories : Recent St James' Park Trips Encapsulate Liverpool's Demise

When we think of Liverpool and Newcastle United in the Premier League era, we are often drawn to the back-to-back seven-goal matches at Anfield in the mid-90s, of Collymore closing in, Bjorn Tore Kvarme poking the ball through David James' legs, and of Fowler towering above Philippe Albert. Plenty more remarkable has happened besides; Michael Owen's hatrick at St James' Park, David Thompson inspiring a second-half comeback in 1998, Jamie Redknapp scoring a header in 2000, and Xabi Alonso's 50-yarder in 2006.

However, just as those epic matches of crackers and chaos optimised the free-spirited side of the Roy Evans years, the most recent meetings of the teams in the north east serve as perhaps the most hard-hitting reminder of what has happened to the Reds over the past three seasons.

In December 2008, Liverpool visited Newcastle for the final match of a calendar year which would yield 78 points and just three defeats from 38 games. They travelled to St James' having lost just one league match in the first half of the season, a woodwork-ridden defeat to Spurs after arguably one of our best performances. There was no Fernando Torres, who'd only appeared sporadically since pulling a hamstring at Aston Villa at the end of August, and yet the Reds went into the game top of the league and confident of another three points, a mark contrast to the current mindset whereby the loss of any key player would leave most fans preparing for the worst.

Liverpool started the game well on top against a Toon who were battling relegation but found Shay Given in inspired form in the opening half an hour, as the Irishman kept out everything we could throw at him. Sounds familiar? Liverpool fans have bemoaned the man-of-the-match performances of goalkeepers, particularly at Anfield in recent seasons, and if there is no early goal, there is unlikely to be any goal. Even against West Bromwich Albion recently, when Liverpool dominated the match for 75 minutes, a failure to score in the first ten made it inevitable that the visitors would score with their first meaningful attack.

But this was a different Liverpool, the closest the club had come to re-manufacturing the well-oiled machines of the 70s, that would churn results out week after week, with performance levels of themselves or the opposition, the amount of luck forthcoming and the size of the injury list all completely irrelevant. Dirk Kuyt moved in from the right to replace Torres, while an ageing Hyypia, a young Insua, an erratic Babel, the reliable Benayoun and a raw Lucas Leiva filled other positions where others were injured or resting.

The 30 minutes of spectacular saves and last ditch defending didn't suck the wind out of the Reds' sails like it would today. It merely served to reinforce the confidence installed in them by Rafa Benitez that their game-plan was full-proof as long as the players, any players, did their jobs. Eventually, as it so often did during the 08-09 season, whether in the first or last minute, it transpired into goals. Javier Mascherano split the defence to allow Benayoun to set up Steven Gerrard, who crashed a shot past Given to open the scoring.

Gerrard had already been ten-years a star in Liverpool's midfield, a European Cup winning captain and  scorer of one of the greatest cup final goals of all time, but this was as good a performance as he'd give in a season where he'd win his second Football Writers' Award. This was the culmination of five years' work under Benitez, turning him from the all-action, running, kicking and screaming box-to-box midfielder, into a ruthlessly efficient scorer and provider of goals - he'd gone from being the box office player with the big drive, to a true match-player capable of majors.

Sami Hyypia, in what was his last season for the club, headed the second six minutes later before Newcastle pinched a surprise goal from their own set-piece just before half-time. Again, if today's first half follows a similar pattern, we'll all be piling our pounds on a barcode scoring the next goal, and the next, and the next. Liverpool simply went out for the second half determined to cover-up the embarrassment of conceding a goal to Joe Kinnear's shower, and scored three more times, and passed Newcastle into submission. Babel pounced on 50 minutes to re-establish the gulf between the sides, before Gerrard raced onto Lucas' finest pass to date and chipped Given with arrogant ease. Xabi Alonso, currently one of the world's greats, was only good enough for a place on the bench that day, and the Spaniard struck a late penalty to complete the scoring.

The result put Liverpool three points clear of Chelsea after the Blues dropped points at Fulham, and a whopping ten points clear of Manchester United, who would somehow come back to win the league and ruin everything, though the disappointment in not winning a title that was in the bag at Christmas couldn't hide the progress being made under Benitez. Newcastle United were relegated.

The Toon bounced back quickly, winning the Championship at the first time of asking with the drive of Joey Barton and a useful lump up front in Andy Carroll. Liverpool, meanwhile, began a rampant collapse on and off the field, and when the teams met next on Tyneside in 2010, Roy Hodgson was Liverpool manager.

The midfield space once occupied by Mascherano and Alonso was now being over-run by Barton and Kevin Nolan, who both scored, with Carroll blasting a late third that his performance deserved, sending the media into hysteria over the English Drogba, and Liverpool towards a relegation battle. The following season, with Liverpool £35 million lighter for the acquisition of Carroll, Newcastle cruised to a routine 2-0 win, the Reds' eighth league defeat in three months, and a seventh in eight games, with goals from Cisse, Carroll's replacement at a third of the price. Newcastle moved 11 points clear of Liverpool in the Premier League table after 31 matches, with the Reds looking over their shoulders at the closing Sunderland, Fulham, Swansea and Norwich.

And so we move to today's fixture, one that fills me with dread since Newcastle need the points to move away from another relegation scrap, against a Liverpool team with precious more than pride to play for, something which seems to matter very little to the club these days. Without Luis Suarez, at least Liverpool can ensure that it is likely to be the football that dominates the headlines after the match - though that may not necessarily provide much solace, with Newcastle's powerful Francophone front-line likely to cause our mis-shapen defence plenty of problems. Liverpool's only hope is that the Daniel Sturridge who looked a phenomenon for 45 minutes on Sunday, leads an attack that proves our only form of defence, and temporarily buries the reality that memories of December 2008 bring back.

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