Miles Starforth’s match analysis: Newcastle United 1 Liverpool 1

Mikel Merino closes down former Magpie Georginio Wijnaldum.
Mikel Merino closes down former Magpie Georginio Wijnaldum.

Rafa Benitez said it would be a “special game”.

And Liverpool, his former club, really were special for 45 minutes.

But they couldn’t beat Benitez’s Newcastle United side, who claimed a hard-fought point from a 1-1 draw at St James’s Park yesterday.

Newcastle, with seven games gone, are a quarter of the way to Premier League safety.

Two seasons ago, under Steve McClaren, they had three points and were 19th in the table. That’s progress.

Benitez talked about being a “special game” given his long association with Liverpool.

United’s manager made an attacking change to his starting XI – he handed Jonjo Shelvey his first start since the opening weekend of the season – and also brought in Javier Manquillo.

It was the first time Shelvey had started a game alongside Merino, who had impressed during the midfielder’s three-game suspension. There was no place in the team – or on the bench – for Aleksandar Mitrovic, who was available after serving a three-game ban of his own.

Jurgen Klopp, meanwhile, could afford to leave Roberto Firmino on the bench.

There was a minute’s applause in memory of former United chairman Freddy Shepherd – who passed away this week – before kick-off.

Both teams wanted to attack, and there were some nervous moments for Newcastle in a frenetic opening period.

United attempted to steady themselves, but the visitors repeatedly found pockets of space in and around the box.

St James’s Park was sold out for most home games in the Championship, but there weren’t occasions like this. This was an occasion.

Chants from both sets of fans echoed around the stadium as Middle East-backed investor Amanda Staveley looked on from the directors’ box.

Newcastle struggled to contain Liverpool, who were irresistible at times.

Their pace and movement troubled United, and DeAndre Yedlin made a key block to deny Mohamed Salah a shot on goal. Ex-Newcastle midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum hit the post with a flicked shot, and the ball was twice cleared off the line before Sadio Mane fired wide.

But it wasn’t long before Liverpool had the ball in the net.

A header from Matt Ritchie dropped for Coutinho, and the Brazlian stepped inside Shelvey before unleashing an unstoppable shot with his right foot. Rob Elliot had no chance.

Joselu had hardly had a kick in the opposition half up to then.

But the striker – who had kept his place despite missing a series of chances in his previous two games – was there when it mattered.

Shelvey sent Joselu clear with a superb through ball in the 36th minute. Joel Matip tracked Joselu and slid in to challenge him, but he struck the ball off the summer signing’s shin and it rolled past Simon Mignolet and into the net.

Elliot denied Sturridge, gifted a chance by a Ciaran Clark miskick, after the break.

But the half was far more even, and Liverpool were as niggly as they had to be to stop Newcastle playing.

Benitez made a defensive change in the 74th minute – he brought on Isaac Hayden in place of Mikel Merino – while Klopp freshened up his attack with Firmino and Dominic Solanke.

United, however, finished strongly.

And Benitez’s team look like they’ll get stronger by the game this season.