Football: Liverpool hold on to McManaman's lead

Newcastle United 1 Liverpool 2
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The Independent Online
Newcastle United 1 Liverpool 2

For the final 20 minutes at St James' Park yesterday, Liverpool were not much Kop. With 10 men stationed on the defensive side of the half- way line, they clung on nervily for their fourth successive Premiership victory, their first on Tyneside since the Dalglish management days of 1987.

They ought to have won at a thoroughbred canter. For half-an-hour before the break they had played like champions in the making. But they left Tyneside with lingering doubts about their true championship pedigree.

They did, though, leave with the three points that will put hope in Liverpudlian hearts that a serious title challenge might be mounted in the new year. The two goals Steve McManaman struck ensured Roy Evans' team will start 1998 within nine points of their arch rivals from up the East Lancs Road - and with a game in hand.

Kenny Dalglish was the managerial mastermind of Liverpool's last championship success, in 1990. His concerns going into 1998 are more pragmatic. Yesterday's defeat, their fifth in seven Premiership matches, has left his Newcastle team just six points clear of a relegation place - and they have not won in seven league matches.

At least they got their consolation in early yesterday. The Magpies, in fact, were in the ascendancy when Steve Watson rose to head in Keith Gillespie's left-wing free-kick. It was the first home goal in four league matches at St James' Park and the first by a Newcastle player in 237 minutes of Premiership play.

As it transpired, they were up against the ropes as soon as Watson's 16th-minute header hit the back of the Gallowgate End goal. From then until half-time Liverpool were so dominant the Toon Army could only applaud the slickness of their method and movement - and count the blessing that only two of the sweeping red advances brought goals.

The first arrived on the half-hour. Michael Owen, whose pace was already opening up the Newcastle defence, started the move on the half-way line, winning possession and feeding Robbie Fowler, who in turn found McManaman on the right angle of the penalty area. By the time the home guard spotted the danger, McManaman had chested the ball down and crashed a right-foot shot in off the far post. It was an execution of classic Liverpool precision and it was followed by another of similar quality three minutes before half-time.

Owen and McManaman had the Newcastle defence on the back-foot before the elder slipped the ball to the younger, just outside the right edge of the home penalty area, and the return pass was half-volleyed past Shaka Hislop by McManaman.

The tide did not flow in one direction after the break. Faustino Asprilla and Gillespie were both guilty of wildly squandering chances as Newcastle, with more commitment than class, fought for a point and their honour. They very nearly claimed both when Lee cut in from the left and unleashed a thundering right-foot drive. It would have beaten James but the model professional in the Liverpool goal pushed the ball on to the bar and over for a corner.

Liverpool never regained their momentum in the second-half but Hislop made a fine one-handed save to keep out a drive by Oyvind Leonhardsen and Fowler clipped a free-kick against the cross-bar from 25 yards.

Such was the uncertainty creeping through the Liverpool ranks, though, Evans withdrew Fowler, sent on Jamie Carragher and watched his side spend the last 11 minutes with all bar Owen fighting a backs-to-the-wall operation.

There were a few boos initially when the final whistle sounded but the bulk of the Toon Army stood to applaud the home players for their efforts. Dalglish, at least, should be spared the task of telephoning all 36,000 to offer his apologies.

Goals: Watson (16) 1-0; McManaman (30) 1-1; McManaman (42) 1-2.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Hislop; Barton (Hamilton, h-t), Watson, Pearce, Pistone; Gillespie, Batty, Lee, Beresford; Barnes, Asprilla. Substitutes not used: Beresford, Rush, Ketsbaia, Tomasson, Given (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; McAteer, Kvarme, Matteo, Harkness; Leonhardsen, Redknapp, Ince, McManaman; Fowler (Carragher, 79), Owen. Substitutes not used: Riedle, Berger, Babb, Friedel (gk).

Booking: Liverpool: Redknapp.

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

Man of the match: McManaman.

Attendance: 36,702.