They routed Newcastle and yet, for all their swagger, for all their ample dominance, they had to rely on a goal by Robbie Fowler deep into injury time to take all three points. Such carelessness costs championships.
The final minutes were scarcely credible. Liverpool were 3-1 up and creating chances at will. It was too easy. The match was won. Then Newcastle, who had been abject, got two goals in the final four minutes through Faustino Asprilla and Warren Barton which made the unthinkable possible. Or it was until Fowler struck to spare acute home embarrassment. The scoreline was identical to last year's thriller, the circumstances somewhat different.
"To even think about having to score a last-minute winner was ridiculous," Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said. "A scoreline of 3-0 would have been a far fairer reflection of the match."
The first 25 minutes hardly rested naturally with the climax. The crowd bayed encouragement but the players seemed oblivious to it. Liverpool prefer patience to brag, and at times they can dally on the edge of the penalty area for an eternity without making a meaningful thrust into it.
Newcastle, content to sit back and strike on the break, were more than happy to watch their opponents pass themselves into cul-de-sacs, leaving Asprilla isolated up front in the hope he might make a meal out of a morsel. The plan appeared to be working until Liverpool destroyed it with a sudden explosive surge.
Jamie Redknapp had barely been able to judge the weight or direction of a pass, but his 40-yard ball to Jason McAteer provided a sudden switch of direction that laid Newcastle's left flank bare, and as the visitors scrambled to cover, McAteer used the space to hit a low pass across the face of the area. Fowler moved towards and then left the ball and Steve McManaman, following in behind, arced an exquisite shot beyond the dive of Shaka Hislop.
The next goal arrived while Newcastle were still trying to fathom what had gone wrong. McManaman, a bewildering wonder of twisting limbs all night, slipped a pass beyond the visiting rearguard and Fowler, brimming with menace, crashed a shot against the far post. The ball might have gone anywhere but it arrived like an invitation at Patrik Berger's feet and he passed into the empty net.
Fowler had played a part in both goals and his reward came after 42 minutes. Redknapp, suddenly able to find gaps where none appeared to exist, delivered another precise pass and Fowler gave Hislop no chance with a low shot delivered as defenders snapped at his feet.
Newcastle were well and truly deflated and a cameo played out on the side of the pitch seemed to be summing up their night. A visiting supporter, thoroughly disgusted, made his way along the touchline and threw his replica shirt at their manager, Kenny Dalglish. He was escorted away by stewards, his progress marked by boos from the black and white hordes, their disapproval not aimed at the protester.
He missed an extraordinary climax. Liverpool were rampant, carving opportunity after opportunity, so that even when Keith Gillespie wriggled past several half-hearted challenges and shot low through the arms of the tardy David James after 70 minutes it seemed unlikely to matter.
It was a wholly misleading impression. A mistake by Redknapp gave David Ginola possession on the left with four minutes remaining and his 60-yard pass bewildered Liverpool's defenders. They dithered, Asprilla nipped in and flicked the ball over the advancing James.
Anfield gasped in disbelief. But worse was to follow. Another long ball was won in the air by Barton and Asprilla's chasing resulted in the ball ricocheting back to him. Barton's shot went through at least one pair of legs and then trickled, almost tauntingly, over the line.
Liverpool looked thoroughly distressed, but they summoned one last attack down the left. Stig Inge Bjornebye launched a long cross and Fowler sprang to head past Hislop from close range. It should not have been necessary to decide it this way.
Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Kvarme, Wright, Matteo; McAteer, McManaman, Redknapp, Barnes, Bjornebye; Berger, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Collymore, Harkness, Ruddock, Kennedy, Warner (gk).
Newcastle United (4-1-4-1): Hislop; Watson, Peacock, Albert, Elliott; Batty; Gillespie, Barton, Clark (Ginola, h-t), Beardsley (Ferdinand, h- t; Crawford, 55); Asprilla. Substitutes not used: Beresford, Srnicek (gk).
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).
Results, page 23
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