Murphy's double lights up Liverpool

Liverpool 3 Newcastle United 0
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The Independent Football

Five minutes before kick-off the lights went out, and five minutes after the final whistle most connected with Newcastle would have accepted their romantic and unlikely challenge for the championship had also been extinguished.

Since Newcastle's last two tilts at the title in 1996 and 1997 had largely been ended at Anfield, there was a certain symmetry surrounding last night's events, although there was no repetition of the 4-3 scorelines.

Bobby Robson, who has not won at Anfield as a player or manager in 29 attempts, said his team were both disappointing and overawed by the occasion, although his counterpart, Phil Thompson, argued differently. Liverpool, he said, were merely very, very good.

The pace of Nicolas Anelka electrified the night rather better than the floodlights, which were out of action for half an hour, although a hamstring injury to Michael Owen has put the striker in doubt for next week's game in Barcelona, which will decide Liverpool's fate in the Champions' League.

Nevertheless, Gérard Houllier, who addressed his players yesterday after recuperating from his heart operation in Paris, will have seen one of his most controversial decisions, to bring this enigmatic player back to the English game, thoroughly vindicated.

Asked if he would now make Anelka's loan move to Merseyside permanent in the summer, Phil Thompson replied: "It makes your mind up even more. From the sidelines you were willing the players to give him the ball. There is a maturity and awareness about Nicolas's game now; where before he relied just on his pace."

It was, however, precisely his pace which cracked open the game in the 32nd minute as, leaving Nikos Dabizas trailing desperately in his wake, he squared for the inrushing Owen. His pass missed its intended target but Danny Murphy, timing his run rather better, thundered home his sixth of the season.

But for Shay Given, Newcastle might have been wrecked long before the final whistle. His gloves deflected Anelka's drive from the right edge of the area on to the intersection of post and crossbar before the interval and his sprawling save denied Owen his customary goal in this fixture.

Deprived of Craig Bellamy and Kieron Dyer, Newcastle also lost Gary Speed to a hamstring injury and, aside from a disallowed goal from Carl Cort, only once came close to scoring when Clarence Acuña scooped the ball over from six yards.

However, this was a game in which Liverpool, who hitherto had impressed far more away from home than on Merseyside, demonstrated their class in front of their own supporters with Vladimir Smicer playing a central role in the second half.

The combination of the Czech and Anelka marauding down the right stretched Sylvain Distin, Newcastle's left-back, to the very limit of his ability. Emile Heskey mirrored Acuña's miss shortly after the restart, failing to convert a beautifully-placed cross from Smicer.

However, Smicer and Liverpool were not to be denied for long and a delicate pass had Murphy muscling his way through a succession of weak challenges and shooting decisively past Given.

Liverpool deserved a third and it arrived again courtesy of Smicer. He set up Dietmar Hamann, who had walked out of St James' Park immediately after the 1999 FA Cup final, and whose thunderous shot emphasised that the Premiership is now a three-horse race.

Liverpool: (4-4-2): Dudek 7; Abel Xavier 6, Henchoz 6, Hyypia 6, Riise 5; Smicer 8 (Barmby, 82), Hamann 7, Murphy 8, Heskey 7; Anelka 8, Owen 6 (Litmanen 5, 72). Substitutes not used: Wright, McAllister, Kirkland (gk).

Newcastle United: (4-4-2) Given 7; Hughes 6, O'Brien 6, Dabizas 5, Distin 6; Solano 6, Jenas 7, Speed 5 (Acuña 6, 37), Robert 6; Cort 6 (Bernard, 76), Shearer 5. Substitutes not used: Elliott, Ameobi, Harper (gk).

Referee: J Winter (Stockton) 5.