It has been a long while since Newcastle United were regarded as a persistent thorn in the side of the Premier League’s pedigree performers but here – in front of a hyped up St James’ Park – there was proof that they are reclaiming the mantle of a credible top flight force again.
That is no mean feat. Under Rafa Benitez’s two predecessors, Newcastle occasionally fashioned a performance worthy of taking points but they were more often an easy touch for Premier League predators. The sheer number of three or four-goal defeats that preceded this season’s return to the big time were evidence that Newcastle were not fit for Premier League performance. So too were the three draining relegation fights in four seasons that led United – in desperation – to turn to Benitez.
With every passing week, it looks more and more like a move that could be the most significant in the club’s recent history. At a sold-out St James’ Park for the biggest game of this nascent campaign, Newcastle felt like they belonged in the Premier League again. And for all that this was a win borne out of discipline and determination rather than the creative flourishes that arrived with their visitors, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Benitez is in the process of building something much more substantial at St James’ Park.
The presence of financier Amanda Staveley in the stands added a dash of off-the-field intrigue that will do little to douse takeover talk that has gained momentum in recent days.
The official word was that Staveley – who has close links to Liverpool and is a Reds fan – is a friend of Kenny Dalglish, who was at St James’ Park to watch the two clubs he managed with differing levels of success. And as of yet there have been no talks for Newcastle brokered by Staveley, who has used her links to wealthy Middle East businessmen to try to do a deal for Liverpool in the past.
But she headed down the St James’ Park tunnel on Sunday after the game with one of Benitez’s lieutenants – and the manager’s wry smile when he was asked about takeover rumours after the game told a tale of its own. Newcastle are up for sale and Staveley knows people who want to take a stake in the world’s most popular league: it is, at the very least, a development laced with intrigue.
While the takeover talk feels like the club might be on the cusp of a new era, this was a performance that spoke more about its where it is right now. Newcastle are not the most talented team in the division but they might be one of the most well-drilled outfits in the top flight: a point emphasised by the way they squeezed the life out of Liverpool’s expensively and impressively assembled attacking arsenal here.
In Jamaal Lascelles they a rapidly improving centre-back who is adding awareness and tactical acumen to the raw potential which first brought him to Newcastle – and he was helped hugely here by DeAndre Yedlin turning in easily his most complete defensive display in black and white.
They had to be resolute here as Liverpool dominated possession and threatened on the counter. When Phillipe Coutinho opened the scoring with a fantastic, dipping 25-yard shot other Newcastle sides might have folded.
But they responded brilliantly and benefited from a slice of huge good fortune when Joselu was teed up by Jonjo Shelvey and looked as if he might have dallied too long – only for Joel Matip’s tackle to divert the ball onto his shin and past a despairing Simon Mignolet.
The Spanish forward deserves his good fortune. He was very quiet here but in three previous games he’s been industry personified and might have had more than the two goals in four he’s notched so far. For £5million, he looks like a bargain and is the personification of a team that looks better than the sum of its parts.
Benitez had gone for Mikel Merino and Shelvey here: a risk that required some of his other forward-thinking players to adapt their games. Matt Ritchie was selfless and so too was Ayoze Perez, criticised for his attacking contribution in some quarters but a number ten with an acute awareness of what he needs to do defensively. He was told to help Newcastle defend from the front here: that’s exactly what he did.
Jurgen Klopp felt Liverpool deserved to win but Newcastle make teams work very hard to defeat them now. At home they’ve only conceded two goals against 11 men so far: they might have replicated the point they won here on the opening day but for the red card Shelvey picked up. They are competitive and competent and the club is looking forward again.