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Liverpool’s depth could be the title race’s deciding factor as substitutes earn victory over Newcastle

Liverpool 4-2 Newcastle: Mohamed Salah scored twice on a mixed night with help from Cody Gakpo and Diogo Jota off the bench

Richard Jolly
Senior football correspondent
Tuesday 02 January 2024 00:47 GMT
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Klopp on returning players, Newcastle and January fixtures

If titles are won from the bench, it was a very auspicious night for Jurgen Klopp. As Liverpool established a three-point lead at the Premier League summit, they could thank the men who proved the definition of impact subs and the manager who made the decisive changes. Diogo Jota had dual roles in the goal that put Liverpool ahead and then won the penalty that clinched victory. Cody Gakpo, who had been denied a goal a few minutes after his arrival with a sweet strike, scored an altogether scruffier goal.

As Liverpool and Newcastle, whose meetings contain a famous 4-3, shared an action-packed 4-2, the six goals only formed part of the drama. If it conformed to a theme of Liverpool’s season – they rarely do things the easy way – the strength in depth they demonstrated could prove handy as Mohamed Salah took his leave for the African Cup of Nations in extraordinary fashion.

His was both a mixed night and a triumphant one. He scored twice, taking his tally to 18 goals for the season, registered another assist, had a part in the remaining goal and yet also missed a penalty. That Salah was rampant showed one of his best qualities. It was one Liverpool shared. They were irrepressible, chalking up 34 shots. Persistence eventually paid off: Newcastle were level for 69 of the first 74 minutes, Liverpool belatedly taking and then soon losing a lead but, if a repeat of the Manchester United game – 34 shots and no goals – was threatened, it then became a very different occasion.

Mo Salah’s imperious nature saw him score twice and set up a third goal for Liverpool before heading to the Africa Cup of Nations

For Newcastle, though, it had a certain familiarity. This was their seventh defeat in eight games and their annual loss at Anfield, where their wait for a win now stretches back three decades. If Salah’s evening had its peculiarities, so did Martin Dubvraka’s: the goalkeeper was beaten four times, conceded a penalty and yet was outstanding. He threatened to deny Liverpool. So did Newcastle who, while shots rained in at the other end, scored with their second attempt of the game and again with their fifth.

They ended up being worn down by the incessant running of Klopp’s men. There was a breathtaking speed to Liverpool’s game; amid an Anfield downpour, the match overflowed with incident, with disallowed goals, a spurned spot kick, fine saves, glaring misses and considerable annoyance with the officiating of the erratic Anthony Taylor.

One major call came early. Luis Diaz’s diagonal run into the box was halted when he was upended by Sven Botman, Salah thrashed the penalty wildly down the middle, Dubravka beat it back and, with a similar emphasis on force rather than precision, Trent Alexander-Arnold fired the rebound over the bar. Later, there was an audacity to Alexander-Arnold, rifling a half-volley against the upright from the most acute of angles.

Despite conceding four goals, Martin Dubravka had an outstanding night at Anfield including saving Mo Salah’s first-half penalty

Despite the scoreline, it had the feel of a redemptive night for Dubravka, who has had a troubled time since Nick Pope’s injury thrust him back to prominence. Besides his penalty save, there was an extraordinary point-blank block to keep Nunez’s volley out, a double save from the Uruguayan – the first when he escaped unpunished for a nudge on Botman and went clear on goal – and a host of other stops. His resistance began early, when Nunez applied a fine touch to a Salah cross, and became a constant. He excelled to stop a Gakpo shot on the line, a few minutes after the Dutchman came on.

It was a match of five current Liverpool forwards, the two who came off the bench and the trio of starters, plus a former one. As one of Klopp’s definitive front three, Roberto Firmino, returned to Anfield, the current attacking trident combined for the first goal. Diaz had the presence of mind to free Nunez, as much the antithesis to Firmino as the replacement for him, who centred to give Salah a tap in. If it can seem that no one knows what Nunez will do next, Salah might: the Uruguayan’s assists tend to come for the Egyptian.

But with Nunez profligate, Klopp turned to his bench, taking off the Uruguayan and the electric Diaz. Enter Jota, who exchanged passes with Salah, ghosted into the box and gifted Curtis Jones with an open goal. Then Gakpo finished with a mishit from Salah’s cross. Finally, Jota went down after slipping the ball past Dubravka. There were suspicions the Portuguese dived but this time Salah showed a surer touch from 12 yards.

And eventually Newcastle were killed off. But Eddie Howe’s side, while hit with waves of Liverpool attacks, had exuded menace on the break. Dan Burn, standing in as skipper, celebrated heading his boyhood club into the lead but the goal was ruled out because Alexander Isak had been offside. Instead Isak struck, latching on to Anthony Gordon’s pass to shoot past Alisson. Botman headed in Sean Longstaff’s corner. It took a combination of Salah and the substitutes to kill Newcastle off and give Liverpool a cushion at the top.

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