When the Kop finally turned upon Alan Shearer yesterday they made their point with the savage brevity in which football crowds specialise. "You should have stayed on the telly," they sang to the Newcastle manager and although he smiled and shrugged you had to acknowledge that perhaps the Liverpool support had a point.
Three points from safety, Newcastle are tumbling towards relegation as Shearer casts around desperately for a solution to end the chaos. He left out Michael Owen yesterday, bringing him on with 10 minutes left, shortly after Joey Barton had been dismissed for a dreadful tackle on Xabi Alonso. Shearer had recalled Barton for the first time since January and, in keeping with the usual pattern of his career, Barton let his manager down.
You might say there was not a quantum of solace in this performance for Newcastle as Liverpool's famous fan Daniel Craig – James Bond himself – would have recognised yesterday from his place in the Anfield VIP seats. By the end, Liverpool's players were queuing up to take potshots at Steve Harper's goal, Alonso hit the bar twice before he was carried off and Steven Gerrard did the same in the 90th minute as Newcastle's faded old stars gradually gave in.
In the front row of the directors' box, the club's owner Mike Ashley was chuckling as Shearer was teased by the home support but no one was laughing when Barton was shown a straight red card by referee Phil Dowd minutes earlier. It was a terrible challenge, his legs brought together like a pincer on Alonso who left on a stretcher. It was the culmination of a long-running feud between the two players and it demonstrated that Barton has changed little.
He walked to the tunnel shaking his head as if some kind of injustice had been done but Shearer's decision to ignore the player demonstrated that he disagreed. Barton's three-match ban signals the end of his season and most Newcastle fans will hope that it will also be the end of his career at the club. A Liverpudlian, Barton comes, of course, from the same Huyton district as Gerrard, although there is absolutely no doubt which one you would want in your team.
The brainlessness of Barton's tackle on Alonso changed the atmosphere of the stadium where, until then, the Kop's sense of fair play had precluded them from goading the Newcastle fans. Barton, however, seemed to change their minds and the Kop turned on Shearer immediately. "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry," said Shearer, "so I decided to laugh."
If anything, the most encouraging individual performance for Newcastle yesterday was that of their manager after the game. Shearer was decisive and outspoken about Barton, he was unsentimental about leaving out Owen and he refused to worry too much about a game that he clearly never expected to win anyway. The home games against Middlesbrough a week today and Fulham on 16 May are where most people, including Shearer, believe his team's fate will be decided.
Judging by his reasons for leaving out Owen – he said quite frankly that Newcastle's best chance of a goal was going to be a shot from "15 or 20 yards" – the former Liverpool striker might well be restored to the line-up against Middlesbrough. But nevertheless it must have been a miserable afternoon for the man who is England's highest current goalscorer, although his international career is feeling less current by the week.
It is a little more than seven years since Owen was presented with the European footballer of the year award at Anfield before scoring both goals in a win against Derby County, yet yesterday his arrival on 80 minutes was booed by many of the home fans. The man who scored 158 goals for Liverpool barely troubled his fellow academy graduate Jamie Carragher whom he once overshadowed. And to think Owen left Liverpool in 2004 in order to win trophies.
As far as the title race goes, Liverpool are staying resolutely on the coat-tails of Manchester United whom they now trail by three points, having played one game more. Yossi Benayoun and Dirk Kuyt scored in the first half, the substitute Lucas Leiva added a third later on. Time is running out for Rafa Benitez's team but there was also the sense that injuries might be catching up with them, too.
Fernando Torres' hamstring problem was judged too much of a risk to play him, the extent of Alonso's Barton-inflicted injury is not yet clear and Javier Mascherano also had to come off injured near the end. Benitez will not be thankful that there is no Champions League semi-final to concern him this week but at least his players will have five days to recover ahead of the West Ham game on Saturday.
That will be a big game for Benitez but even if his team win it, the title could be United's by the time Liverpool play against West Bromwich Albion on 17 May. If Liverpool win at Upton Park, the defending champions will need to take seven points from their games against Manchester City, Wigan and Arsenal to win the title by the time Liverpool visit the Hawthorns. Their pursuit, however, has been admirable.
Benayoun looked borderline offside when he tapped in Kuyt's cross for the first goal yesterday but even Shearer admitted it would not have saved Newcastle. Kuyt lost Habib Beye to head in the second from Gerrard's corner and Lucas nodded in the third from Fabio Aurelio's cross on 87 minutes. But the worry for Shearer was that every time Liverpool caught sight of Harper's goal they looked like scoring.
Once there was a time when Newcastle might have come to Anfield hopeful of a point or even more but it was plain to see in their manager more than anyone that they know their place now. And that is fighting for their lives with the other desperate men at the bottom of the League.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio; Mascherano (Ngog, 89), Alonso (Lucas, 80); Benayoun, Gerrard, Riera (Babel, 63); Kuyt. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Dossena, El Zhar, Skrtel.
Newcastle (4-5-1): Harper; Beye, Coloccini, Bassong, Duff; Martins (Owen, 80), Butt, Barton, Smith, Lovenkrands (Gutierrez, h-t); Viduka (Nolan, 80). Substitutes not used: Guthrie, Edgar, Carroll, Krul (gk).
Booked: Newcastle Smith, Coloccini.
Sent off: Newcastle Barton.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Man of the match: Alonso.
Not so Super Al: Shearer's managerial record
*Newcastle have picked up just two points from five games since the appointment of Alan Shearer as interim manager at the start of last month, drawing at Stoke and at home to Portsmouth. Andy Carroll scored the only goal of the Shearer reign so far, a late equaliser to rescue a point at Stoke on 11 April.
*Results so far
Sat 4 Apr ......... Chelsea (h) ......... Lost 2-0
Sat 11 Apr ......... Stoke (a) ......... Drew 1-1
Sun 19 Apr ......... Spurs (a) ......... Lost 1-0
Mon 27 Apr ......... Portsmouth (h)......... Drew 0-0
Sun 3 May ......... Liverpool (a) ......... Lost 3-0
......... P5......... W0......... D2......... L3......... F1......... A7......... Pts 2
Mon 11 May ......... Middlesbrough (h)
Sat 16 May ......... Fulham (h)
Sun 24 May ......... Aston Villa (a)
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