Who would have thought a few months ago that Liverpool – the all-consuming force of the Premier League – would be fazed by a trip to struggling Newcastle?
The tables can turn very quickly in the top flight, and it’s all testament to Eddie Howe’s sterling job at St James’ Park, which has become a stronghold under his leadership.
When the former Bournemouth boss took over in November, Newcastle had just five points to their name and could hardly buy a win, let alone one at home – even with all the financial might of their new owners, the Saudi-backed Public Investment Fund.
Eddie Howe’s Newcastle will provide a stern test for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool at St James’ Park
The Magpies are one of the Premier League’s top form teams have won the last six at home
Howe took five games to get his first win – a 1-0 win over Burnley in front of the Toon Army in December – and that’s the same month when his side last tasted defeat on Tyneside. Just as Liverpool battle Man City for the title, they’ll have to emulate their rivals and find a way to beat the Magpies at home.
Since losing 4-0 to Pep Guardiola’s men at St James’ Park, Newcastle have transformed their home ground into a real fortress. They’ve won their last six games in a row there, taking points off the likes of Manchester United, Leicester and high-flying Wolves.
Now catapulting themselves into the top half of the table, Newcastle are looking confident and comfortable after breaching that magic 40-point mark of survival. This is a side that had failed to win any of its first 14 games. No side in Premier League history has avoided the drop after a start that bad previously.
Howe said the key was turning a fear of playing at St James’ Park – where the crowd are passionate and have high expectations – into one of pride and excitement.
Howe has transformed their fortunes from relegation strugglers to top half contenders
That was perfectly encapsulated when his side went behind against a Leicester side who dominate the ball – but Newcastle remained patient and found a stoppage time winner through Bruno Guimaraes.
‘Our home form was always going to be absolutely key in us trying to stay in the division,’ he explained last week. ‘We really wanted to try to create an environment where the players really were excited to play at home, wanted to play at home.
‘I have to give the supporters huge credit that they have created that environment very quickly. The players now look forward to home games, and the ability to express themselves and play without fear.
‘Even against Leicester when we didn’t have the ball and we were under pressure, the supporters sort of understood that and stuck with us, and hopefully we rewarded them at the end with a moment that certainly will live long in my memory.’
So timing wise, this isn’t a great moment for Jurgen Klopp’s side to be visiting a ground enjoying such a high, as his side battle on two different fronts – one eye on the Premier League and one on the Champions League.
Liverpool will likely have to rotate for the game as they prepare for their Champions League second leg against Villarreal
LIVERPOOL’S LAST FIVE LEAGUE GAMES
Aston Villa (A)
Both pieces of silverware are so close Liverpool can nearly reach out and touch the handles, but it’s a situation Klopp must handle delicately, or both prizes could be out of sight in the space of a week.
He knows one loss in the league can effectively hand City the title. At the same time, failing to manage his squad properly in between their second leg with Villarreal in Europe – where they lead 2-0 on aggregate – could cost them their spot in the final.
Some rotation is expected, then, but the game represents a real banana skin. Liverpool still have Tottenham to play this season, but you could actually argue that this is their toughest league game left – especially given how inconsistent Antonio Conte’s men have been of late.
Should Liverpool come through unscathed against Villarreal next week, they’ll be able to push on with their league games ahead of the showpiece in Paris at the end of the season with the Premier League title their priority.
But for now, Klopp is juggling two jobs in the space of a week and an in-form Newcastle will be looking to test their resolve, as well as strength in depth, as he tries to balance both games evenly.
We know much Klopp hates the turnaround of Wednesday to Saturday lunchtime games, and that will be a big gripe for him as he prepares to head up north, and then to eastern Spain again in midweek.
Klopp has never shied away from a moan about TV scheduling, but he spotted this fixture congestion earlier this month and complained that broadcasters had ‘thrown a stick between our legs’.
Klopp is worried about Liverpool’s short recovery time between Wednesday night against Villarreal and Saturday lunchtime against the Magpies
‘We are part of four competitions, and thankfully we are good enough this year not to go out early, but the fixture list we have now, let’s get through it,’ Klopp said.
‘Because of the success we had so far we play Saturday against City, but it could have been Aston Villa [in the Premier League]. Then we play United, then we play Everton. Then, if we get through tomorrow, we have a semi-final and BT and the Premier League thought we should have Newcastle away at 12.30.
‘The schedule, and how people use the fame in the moment – Liverpool is hot and everyone wants to see them – they couldn’t care less, the TV stations. It’s just not OK.
‘If we play a Champions League semi-final, find me another league in the world and another broadcaster who would put the one team in the semi-finals – it might be two or three English teams – on at 12.30.
Liverpool know they can ill afford to slip up in their remaining games as they battle with City
‘It’s like: ”Throw them a little stick between the legs!” What? What are you doing? Why would you do that? That’s why it’s so difficult, that’s why it never happens, because nobody cares.’
Liverpool already have one blow to contend with ahead of their trip to Newcastle, with Roberto Firmino ruled out after struggling with a foot injury. The Brazilian has missed the last two league games, and was also unavailable for the first leg of their Champions League semi-final with Villarreal.
The Reds aren’t just facing a team enjoying a decent run, they are facing one of the strongest teams in this calendar year. Only themselves and title rivals Man City have been in better form in the last 14 games – taking us back to mid January.
So if the Premier League began on January 15, Newcastle would be third in the league with 31 points. Klopp knows he is facing a ‘difficult’ challenge against a team of ‘confident figures’ after developing a real winning mentality under Howe.
Newcastle – one of the league’s form sides – could be their toughest game remaining
Klopp is aware his players face a ‘difficult’ challenge against a team on a real high
‘They’ve evolved a lot and are on an incredible run,’ he said ahead of the game. ‘Our analysis meetings start and I usually see the last ten or twelve results, it’s green when you win and red when you don’t. Their results are green, green, green, some red, then lots of green again. They are obviously in a really good moment and Eddie has played a massive part in it.
‘They’re doing really well and they’ve signed a few good players, the power now at Newcastle [means] there will be a lot of change [in the future], but for this season they’ve brought in some smart moves, really good players.
‘They’ve got stability with the players that were there before who have grown into really confident figures as well. It’s really good to see what little changes can make and it will be a difficult one for us.’