Red letter day for Benitez's men

Newcastle 1 Liverpool 5
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The Independent Online

Not long into 2008 Manchester United came to St James' Park and delivered an exhibition of ruthless attacking play that ripped Newcastle apart and finished 5-1. The visitors looked like champions in the making that night and, in a display of equal conviction yesterday, Liverpool ended 2008 on the same ground with the same 5-1 victory – one that keeps them top of the Premier League.

Rafael Benitez's evolved team may not be champions come May, but in his fifth season at Anfield the Spaniard has his best chance yet of breaking Liverpool's 19-year wait for the title.

"We have given ourselves a great chance," said Liverpool's captain and inspiration Steven Gerrard. "If we want to stay at the top, we have got to deal with the pressure. But, if we keep playing like this, we will be there. This is the best team I have played with." Liverpool's feeling got better when news came through of Chelsea's draw at Fulham, but Benitez's assistant, Sammy Lee, remained cautious. "We feel we are good enough," he said when asked if Liverpool can finish top. "We feel we have a very strong, very focused, very determined group of players. We have got a belief, it's not arrogance."

Lee was unprepared to go further. He repeated a mantra of personal and collective "improvement". Lee has been the distance as a Liverpool player and knows the second half of the season has just begun and beating Newcastle here is hardly the task it once was.

But this was persuasive football from Liverpool, who are 10 games unbeaten. So far ahead of Newcastle were they that Benitez, sitting in the directors' box due to his kidney stones operation, was able to pose for photographs with a female admirer less than an hour in.

The score was 3-1 then. On 66 minutes Steven Gerrard made it four, his 13th goal of the season, and three minutes later the Liverpool captain was replaced. Having earlier scored his 12th and generally run the game with a fluid midfield masterclass, Gerrard received an ovation – from Newcastle fans.

Otherwise those supporters spent the game serenading Shay Given. If not for Newcastle's stalwart goalkeeper, this could have been double figures. Given made five saves of note in the first 19 minutes alone as Gerrard roamed free and unchallenged – begging the question: why was he not man-marked? An idea has grown outside Tyneside that Joe Kinnear has stabilised Newcastle, but it is not one shared universally locally.

Newcastle lost at Wigan on Friday and this was further proof that Kevin Keegan was correct when he said in May that Chelsea's 2-0 win here showed his side were "a million miles" away from the top four. But this match was all about Liverpool. Benitez, not a manager to predict, left Robbie Keane on the bench despite his three goals in the last two games. Fernando Torres was not even a substitute. Xavi Alonso was, so too Albert Riera – Liverpool have depth.

In Keane's place, Dirk Kuyt started up front with Gerrard tucked in behind. Ten minutes in, Kuyt rocked Given with a bullet shot and the goalkeeper was called upon to keep Gerrard out twice more before a quarter of an hour had passed.

It was already embarrassing. But after more Given saves, a glaring Sami Hyypia miss and a Charles N'Zogbia goalline clearance, it was the 31st minute before Gerrard finally broke the resistance. Yossi Benayoun supplied the cross and Gerrard's shot was emphatic.

Five minutes later Hyypia placed an uncontested header under the crossbar from a Gerrard corner and it was a question of how many – although, remarkably, in first-half injury-time David Edgar scored for the hosts from a Danny Guthrie corner.

That raised the atmosphere, but anyone with any wit knew Liverpool were coasting. Sure enough, five minutes after the interval some more hesitant Newcastle defending – Fabricio Coloccini did not have a good game – enabled Ryan Babel to stab the ball in from three yards.

Gerrard's second of the afternoon came from a Lucas pass. The Liverpool skipper simply ran away from Coloccini to guide a clip past Given. When Gerrard went off his replacement, David Ngog, contributed immediately by being tripped in the area by Edgar. Alonso, on for Benayoun, belted in the penalty-kick.

Somewhere amid the blur Newcastle substitute Geremi struck the crossbar but, after Alonso's penalty, there were still 15 minutes left – time for Given to make another fine stop from Lucas.

Kinnear (left) bemoaned injuries to defenders Habib Beye and Sébastien Bassong but acknowledged that Liverpool were "head and shoulders" above his side. "I think they are the future champions," he added.

That opinion could change. Arsenal, Chelsea and United have yet to visit Tyneside.

Goals: Gerrard (31) 0-1; Hyypia (36) 0-2; Edgar (45) 1-2; Babel (50) 1-3; Gerrard (66) 1-4; Alonso pen (77) 1-5. Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Edgar, Taylor, Coloccini, Enrique (Ameobi, h-t); Gutierrez, Guthrie, Butt (Geremi, 57) N'Zogbia; Owen (LuaLua, 80) Duff. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Kadar, Carroll, Xisco. Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Carragher, Hyypia, Agger, Insua; Benayoun (Alonso, 60), Lucas, Mascherano, Babel; Gerrard (Ngog, 70), Kuyt (Skrtel, 79). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Riera, Keane, El Zhar. Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire). Booked: Newcastle Taylor, Given; Liverpool Mascherano. Man of the match: Gerrard. Attendance: 52,114

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