After dallying with the improbable for two seasons, these teams returned to the flat earth of normality that even 30 minutes of Alan Shearer could not elevate last night. There was only one goal instead of the magnificent seven of successive 4-3s, but Liverpool will not be worried.
With it they are promoted to third in the Premiership, level on points with second-placed Blackburn, and a season that was a blighted landscape 18 days ago when they went out of the FA Cup has the hint of extra promise. In addition to the Coca-Cola Cup, spring will bring the pursuit of the old foe, Manchester United, who have suddenly come into view just five points ahead.
Instead of Shearer it was 18-year-old Michael Owen who provided the decisive touch, scoring a first-half goal of wonderful simplicity. A chest down and a side-footed volley from a narrow angle that swept over Shaka Hislop into the net while the goalkeeper was still trying to work out which foot he would use. It made you wonder why people freeze in front of goal.
"He's not got a right to score a goal like that," Kenny Dalglish, the Newcastle manager who knows a thing or two about spectacular strikes at Anfield, said. "Shaka is six foot plus, was hardly off his line and he's chipped him." His assessment tailed off in admiration. The goal was glorious in execution but flawed in its inception as Jon Dahl Tomasson appeared to be fouled by Paul Ince as he attempted to run clear, the England midfielder's boot making contact with the man before the ball with a tackle from behind. The rapid switch from potential attack to defence left Newcastle with a yawning gap in their back line and Jason McAteer exploited it beautifully with a cross from the right. Owen had no fear of missing, no anxiety at the prospect of making a mistake, just an absolute belief in his ability. The utter confidence of youth is a wonderful thing.
Hislop had earlier denied Oyvind Leonhardsen, but rather than being a rout, the visitors improved. After 25 minutes Barnes released Tomasson beyond the home back four, a move denied only by David James' charge from his area. Keith Gillespie continued the raid from the right and when his shot was parried but not held by the Liverpool goalkeeper, Tomasson pounced. The celebrations were short-lived as the linesman had flagged for offside.
The hope that encouraged was realised after the interval and although Fowler squandered a chance delivered on a silver platter by Steve McManaman's pass from the right wing and Owen went close, Liverpool resembled a boxer listening anxiously for the final bell at the end.
Inevitably, the threat came in the shape of Shearer, who got 30 minutes last night to reinforce his recovery from his ankle injury begun against Bolton on Saturday. What a difference he made. Newcastle's attack instantly had a leader, a focus and defenders who had looked comfortable all night got the jitters.
One header looped close enough to the bar to worry the Kop, there was danger every time Shearer was near the ball, but Liverpool, breathing heavily and taking punishment, held out.
"The crowd would have preferred to see 4-3 again and sometimes you wish they could appreciate the hard work that went on from both sides," Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said. "They made it hard for us but we weren't found out anywhere on the pitch."
Liverpool (4-4-2): James; McAteer, Matteo, Babb, Harkness; McManaman, Redknapp, Ince, Leonhardsen; Owen, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Jones, Riedle, Berger, Carragher, Friedel (gk).
Newcastle United (3-5-1-1): Hislop; Watson, Pearce, Pistone; Barton, Gillespie, Lee, Beresford (Ketsbaia, 80), Hughes; Tomasson; Barnes (Shearer, 60). Substitutes: Rush, Terrier, Given (gk).
Referee: G Barber (Kingston upon Thames).Reuse content