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Newcastle 2 Liverpool 0: Intensity and intelligence – why can’t United play like this every week?

Georginio Wijnaldum
Georginio Wijnaldum

Newcastle United fans have long expected the unexpected.

But few will have seen this coming.

Eight days after one of the worst performances of the Premier League era, Steve McClaren’s side confounded expectations to beat Liverpool at St James’s Park.

They were everything they weren’t at Selhurst Park.

Newcastle played with intensity and intelligence. They were passionate and purposeful.

And the energy and enthusiasm of a team which had been lifeless and lethargic against Crystal Palace in turn energised the stadium.

Georginio Wijnaldum

Georginio Wijnaldum

Hours after gales wreaked havoc across the region, United flattened their previously in-form opponents.

For once, the crowd had something to shout about on a chilly Tyneside afternoon.

Whatever luck United got yesterday, they had earned.

What’s more, Fabricio Coloccini and Moussa Sissoko played well, with the latter having had a hand in both Martin Skrtel’s own goal and Georginio Wijnaldum’s late strike.

And Coloccini looked like the Coloccini of old.

Why can’t they play like that every week?

Admittedly, Liverpool – who had beaten Southampton 6-1 in a midweek Capital One Cup tie – looked jaded, and maybe Jurgen Klopp will rue his decision to start Daniel Sturridge on the bench.

Had the game gone against United, McClaren’s own team selection would have come under greater scrutiny.

As it was, it baffled supporters before kick-off.

McClaren had said in the build-up to the game that he was “contemplating everything” in the wake of his team’s abject 5-1 defeat to Crystal Palace eight days earlier.

The club’s head coach admitted he had considered dropping every one of those players who had lined up at Selhurst Park.

However, hamstrung by injuries and a lack of squad depth, he made just one change.

And it wasn’t the change many fans wanted.

Captain Fabricio Coloccini kept his place. So too did Moussa Sissoko.

Both players have been found wanting this season.

Did McClaren not have the courage to drop one or both of them? Or did he not have the options?

Instead, McClaren left Ayoze Perez, one of the few players to emerge from the first 14 Premier League games with any credit, out of his starting XI.

In came Siem de Jong for his first league start of the campaign.

Newcastle were better, much better, in the first half-hour, but they struggled with their final ball, and Liverpool were, marginally, the better team in a goalless first half-hour.

McClaren’s side lacked a telling pass, but they played with an intensity and energy which had been lacking at Selhurst Park.

Liverpool, however, should have taken the lead from a 22nd-minute corner, but Christian Benteke inexplicably put the ball over from three yards out.

Jordon Ibe – who McClaren had on loan at Derby County last season – was a threat down the right for Jurgen Klopp’s side.

United’s best chance of the half fell to Papiss Cisse, put through by a well-weighted pass forward from Wijnaldum five minutes before the break.

The striker, however, didn’t have the pace to run clear of Liverpool’s last man, and he was eventually crowded out after hesitating in the visiting box.

Chancel Mbema also headed over from a corner before the break, while Wijnaldum put a free-kick over Simon Mignolet’s goal.

McClaren sent out an unchanged side for the second half, and his team had an extra edge. They challenged and chased everything. The crowd, as it had before the break, responded.

Liverpool’s own support – who had seen their team hammer Southampton 6-1 in midweek – had quietened.

United hassled, harried and hurried their visitors, but Mignolet hadn’t been tested.

That changed in the 69th minute, not that the Sunderland goalkeeper could do much to stop the own goal.

Sissoko swung in a ball from the right and Wijnaldum skipped into the box.

The midfielder shot from an angle, and the ball went in off Skrtel.

Cue bedlam inside St James’s Park, a stadium which has had little to celebrate of late.

Perez had made it on to the pitch a minute before the goal – he replaced an exhausted de Jong – and Yoan Gouffran and Florian Thauvin followed him on to the pitch.

Aleksandar Mitrovic, dropped the previous weekend, again didn’t make it off the bench.

Newcastle had to defend deep, and in numbers, in the last 10 minutes.

But they made sure of the points in injury time.

Wijnaldum, set by Sissoko, deftly lifted the ball over the advancing Mignolet to make certain of three hugely-important points for the team.

The result lifted United above Sunderland, but the club remains in the Premier League’s relegation zone.

This result changes little on its own. Only back-to-back performances and results will change Newcastle’s predicament.

But it’s a start.

And an unexpected start at that.