An hour before kick-off at St James' Park yesterday, Sir Bobby Robson could be found in the press room, glued to the television set, watching England's tail-enders hold off the wiles of Muttiah Muralitharan for a draw. Gérard Houllier was otherwise engaged. By the end of the lunchtime match, the Liverpool manager was watching his team desperately fend off the attacking clout of Newcastle United to cling on for a a draw.
It was a result that confirmed both sides as mere contenders for the Premiership equivalent of the Crackerjack pencil. As Houllier acknowledged afterwards: "We've got to face reality. There's no point in dreaming. Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United are running away with it." Robson agreed: "We are all on bended knees hoping one of those three will slip up, but I can't see it happening. Positions one, two and three are sealed." As Newcastle's veteran manager knows from the painful experience of Partizan Belgrade's visit to Tyneside in August, position four can turn out to be a booby prize, but with the big three threatening to disappear on the horizon, a place in the final qualifying round for the Champions' League is as good as it is likely to get for these two long-time likely lads of the Premiership.
Having lost their hold on the Carling Cup in midweek, Liverpool had greater reason to be content with not losing ground in the consolation stakes yesterday. With Harry Kewell joining Michael Owen on the injured list, and with Wednesday night's defeat against Bolton threatening to undermine further their morale, they set about their task in cautious fashion, Emile Heskey playing deep and wide on the right in a 4-5-1 formation. Alan Shearer headed an early warning shot across their bows, but from then sixth minute Liverpool had a 1-0 lead to protect. The long ball John Arne Riise punted from his left-back position was little more than speculative, but it happened to catch Jonathan Woodgate out of synch. The central defender, playing his third game after a double-hernia operation, misjudged his attempted headed clearance, leaving Danny Murphy clear to trundle the ball past the exposed Shay Given. It was a glaring blunder on Woodgate's part, but Murphy deserved due credit for the long-shot run through the middle that paid off.
Liverpool were quids in, with their five-man midfield applying the vice treatment on their outnumbered counterparts. Newcastle were squeezed and frustrated. Still, it could have been worse for them before the break, a wicked Murphy free-kick whipping off the head of Florent Sinama-Pongolle and the shoulders of Woodgate and flashing wide. As half-time approached, Kieron Dyer did manage to feed the ball through to Shola Ameobi, but his snap-shot cannoned off the legs of the impressively alert Chris Kirkland.
It might have been different for Liverpool had they doubled their lead five minutes into the second-half, Sinima-Pongolle and Steven Gerrard forcing reflex saves from Given in quick succession. As it was, Sinima-Pongolle limped out of the action, to be replaced by Vladimir Smicer, and Liverpool assumed a lame look as an attacking force. Houllier chose to keep Heskey on the wing (having switched him to the left flank at the start of the second-half), leaving the Merseysiders with a lone striker in the diminutive Smicer, as well as a Dietmar Hamann in a midfield suddenly wilting under the weight of Newcastle pressure.
Just before the hour mark, Laurent Robert curled a free-kick a fraction wide. Then, with 62 minutes on the clock, Dyer dispossessed Hamann and angled a pass on the left side of the Liverpool area to such a degree that Kirkland could not have avoided clattering Robert in his attempt to intercept. It was a penalty and Shearer blasted his shot in off the underside of the crossbar. It was his 13th Premiership goal of the season, and his 99th for the Magpies at St James' Park.
The floodgates edged open, but Jermaine Jenas miskicked when Shearer teed up a clear chance for the young midfielder, then Riise headed a Dyer shot out of the goalmouth and Murphy blocked a Titus Bramble shot on the line. Not that it was all black and white. Smicer pulled a shot across the home goal and Hamann had a dipping volley brilliantly saved.
Ultimately it was an outstanding one-handed save by Kirkland that proved decisive, keeping out a rasping Shearer drive five minutes from time. It cannot have failed to have left an impression on Tord Grip. Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant had come in the vain hope of tempting Shearer out of international retirement. "I'm available to play golf and sit by the pool in Portugal next summer, but that's about it," the former England captain said. The Sky, it seems, will remain his limit - the Sky commentary box, that is.
Newcastle United 1
Shearer pen 63
Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 52,151Reuse content