However you can. However you must. Liverpool hadn’t come this far, shed this much blood, to throw it away at the penultimate hurdle. And so when they won a free-kick in the 86th minute, with their Premier League title challenge hanging by a thread, it didn’t matter that Mo Salah had been forced off with injury and substitute Xherdan Shaqiri was standing over the kick. It didn’t matter that Divock Origi, nor Roberto Firmino, was wandering around the area looking for space. However you can, and whoever can: these are the maxims that all title-chasing sides must live by.
With four minutes plus stoppage time left to salvage their dream, Origi headed in Shaqiri’s free-kick to claim a win. That, ultimately, was all that mattered. Everything else was details. Their defending was pretty shocking at times. Salah’s injury will be a concern in the coming days. Christian Atsu and Salomon Rondon were immense for the home side in a valiant team effort that belied their relative lack of jeopardy. But these were footnotes, mere bagatelles, on a night when Liverpool ensured the Premier League title race would be decided on its very final day.
It was that sort of game, really; one in which the stakes were so high that the emotions were never too far from the surface. Certainly Jurgen Klopp was his normal volcanic self on the touchline, a rolling 90-minute eruption that somehow managed to intensify as the game approached its tense later stages. He seemed to take a particular interest in Daniel Sturridge, deployed up front in the continuing absence of Roberto Firmino, and naturally less adept at the bullish defensive work that the Brazilian carries out as standard.
The irony was that as much as Klopp howled at Sturridge for his occasional defensive lapses, with the ball at his feet he wasn’t doing too badly. There was one sumptuous flat diagonal pass that set Sadio Mane clear about 10 minutes in, turning defence into instant attack. And although Mane couldn’t do anything with the chance, a corner was the result. From it, Virgil van Dijk drifted in from the edge of the box unchecked, leapt and rose above a sea of black and white and red. All over?
Not quite. Van Dijk’s towering header may have given Liverpool the perfect start, but queerly the goal seemed to rattle rather than relax them. On 20 minutes, the former Liverpool right-back Javi Manquillo swung in a deep cross to Matt Ritchie, unmarked at the back post. Salomon Rondon had a free shot on goal, which was blocked by Trent Alexander-Arnold on the line, only for Christian Atsu to steal in to finish.
It could actually have been worse for Liverpool: Alexander-Arnold had blocked Rondon’s shot with his arm, and had Atsu not scored a red card and a penalty would probably have been the result. Still, that was enough to get the home crowd going, and as often happens when a strange chi begins to sweep a football stadium, strange things started happening. Sadio Mane was muscled off the ball by Fabian Schar. Jordan Henderson misplaced a pass. Ayoze Perez burst through and rattled the bar. Suddenly Liverpool looked extremely quivery.
And so it fell to Sturridge, a man who is very rarely not the calmest player on the pitch, to bail them out again. Hemmed into the corner by two Newcastle players, a throw or a corner seemed to be the limit of his ambitions. Instead, he played a cheeky back-heel along the touchline to Alexander-Arnold, and two touches later - a cross and a clever right-footed tuck by Salah - Liverpool were ahead again, and largely against the run of play.
This, perhaps, was the critical juncture of the game. The teams emerged for the second half to a pitch being lashed with rain, greasing the surface and nourishing the chaos. A period of relative control, or even a third Liverpool goal, would probably have settled matters. Indeed, Sturridge should have provided it when he blazed over from 10 yards after Georginio Wijnaldum’s cross.It didn’t feel like a pivotal miss at the time, but it certainly did four minutes later. That was when Ki Sung-Yeung’s corner was cleared by Wijnaldum, headed back into the danger area by Manquillo and smashed in by Rondon with a contact so sweet you could have marketed it as an upmarket dessert. The fraction of a second it took Rondon’s shot to hit the net was enough to grip Liverpool in a sharp, cold dread, like a spoon in the small of your back. They had 35 minutes to save their title challenge.
The problem was that too many of their players were having an off-day. Fabinho had been metronomic in the first half, but looked a pale shadow now. Mane had never quite managed to get going. Even Alisson looked like he was trying to swallow down his nerves, miscontrolling a back pass from Dejan Lovren. And now they were about to lose their king.
With 20 minutes left, Salah went up for a high ball with Martin Dubravka, and didn’t get up. He actually didn’t move for quite a while, and as the minutes ticked by and the stretcher-bearers stood guard over him, it was possible to feel Liverpool’s orenda draining from them. After a break of five minutes Salah was carried off, and now Liverpool’s best hope of a goal lay in the hands of Sturridge and Origi. Who says they’ve moved on from the Brendan Rodgers era?
And as Liverpool twiddled their way towards goal without very much conviction, that looked it. Indeed it was Newcastle who looked just as likely to pinch a winner, Atsu almost squirming through to score all on his own. Then Ritchie dragged down Fabinho on the Liverpool right. Free-kick. As Liverpool fans from the Leazes to Los Angeles dug their nails into their palms, Alexander-Arnold calmly dummied over the ball, Shaqiri bent the ball in and Origi rose highest to direct the ball past Dubravka, via the head of Jamaal Lascelles.
There were no histrionics, no shirts pulled off or mass pile-ons. It was almost as if Liverpool were too drained to celebrate. After all, it’s Barcelona next on Tuesday, and then Wolves on Sunday, and all the jangling nerves and wandering thoughts to occupy themselves in the meantime. They’ll get through it however they can, however they must, counting down the hours and the minutes and the seconds to one of the biggest days in the modern history of their club.
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