Sterling show lights up Anfield and downs Toon
Liverpool 2 Newcastle 0
The question "what is Raheem Sterling smoking?" has been posed for various reasons in recent weeks.
While contract demands and snatched photographs leave him scrambling for a new PR team, The Kop will be happy for him to indulge in whatever takes his fancy if he continues to produce moments like the first goal in his side's win over Newcastle.
Sterling offered a glimpse of why there are those who believe Liverpool should ask "how high?" every time his agent tells them to jump, instantly controlling Jordan Henderson's diagonal pass and dancing past Ryan Taylor before delicately picking his spot past Tim Krul.
He was even granted The Kop chant he was craving prior to kick-off - although it was not printable as it contained a swipe at his agent as much as a tribute to the winger. Whether Sterling's contribution will be enough to salvage a Champions League spot is matter of debate, but a victory which was eventually sealed when Joe Allen eased nerves in the second half means Manchester City won't feel secure.
When Brendan Rodgers' side left The Emirates with their heads bowed last weekend they imagined they'd be heading into this fixture at least 10 points off a top four position. That the opportunity to presented itself to reduce the gap to Man City to four says more about Manuel Pellegrini's powers of demotivation than the promise of a red revival, but nevertheless Liverpool knew they had to take it.
Sterling started in a three-man attack because Daniel Sturridge's hokey-cokey routine since his comeback from injury continued, the forward absent with a hip problem. Rodgers, still without the suspended Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel, also requested Henderson play further forward and recalled teenager Jordon Ibe after injury.
Many believe it is Ibe's potential that gives Liverpool the upper hand in the Sterling negotiations, but the England forward demonstrated why he is the more highly developed of the duo. Apart from a sitter in the second half, he was at his best.
For a while the rampaging midfield threatened to overwhelm the visitors.
Whatever Sterling is indulging in, John Carver could have done with a consignment after last weekend's defeat at Sunderland and after demanding a reaction he must have feared the worst the way his team started.
The saying goes it is one magpie for sorrow. There have been 11 causing grief at St James' Park in recent times and having fallen behind on nine minutes the looked like it would become an evening of damage limitation.
Had Philippe Coutinho and Ibe not wasted chances to double the lead, the game would have been over within half-an-hour. Liverpool were dominant all over the pitch at that point, at one stage a game of attack versus defence developing.
It did not last. Instead the visitors offered some of the fight so lacking at The Stadium of Light and should have equalised before half-time. Lee Mason lost his nerve with the whistle edging to his lips on 37 minutes when Dejan Lovren tripped Ayoze Perez. The replay was conclusive enough, but few in the stadium could believe the official had missed it in real time. Carver looked like combusting on the touchline as he protested. He continued his quizzing of the official down the tunnel at half-time, and futile as it was you had to sympathise. Perez also forced Simon Mignolet into a save on the stroke of half-time, and Mehdi Abeid stroked over inside the penalty area as Newcastle ended the half in the ascendancy.
They started the second half the better side too, Liverpool's back four increasingly vulnerable as Lovren and Emre Can tried to form a partnership.
Lovren's clumsy challenge on his defensive partner just after the break summed up the unease. Carver would have been encouraged by how little his side resembled that from the North East derby, but Sterling should have doubled the lead and claimed his second on 56 minutes. Henderson was again the creator, galloping down the right flank and delivering a cross Taylor miskicked. With the net gaping Sterling somehow dragged his shot wide.
Newcastle were more of a threat than many predicted, however. Remy Cabella and Perez were enjoying themselves, and there was a commitment in midfield that forced Rodgers into a reshuffle after an hour. Ibe, whose lack of match fitness showed, was replaced by Fabio Borini as Liverpool sought to regain control.
As usual, they were at their flowing best whenever Coutinho was in possession, his trickery often dumbfounding his own players as much as the opposition.
This wouldn't be a genuine Liverpool v Newcastle fixture without a series of defensive mistakes, however, and Taylor's miserable return to his home town continued on 70 minutes as Allen added the second.
Taylor's poor headed clearance enabled Sterling to flick the ball back into danger, where at the second attempt Allen volley past Krul. Carver would have considered it cruel, but the tactical switch had assisted Liverpool.
Rodgers' side will head to Wembley believing their twin ambitions are still intact, although the game ended on a sour note when Moussa Sissoko was sent off for an horrific challenge on Lucas, surprisingly on a second yellow card rather than a straight red card. (© Daily Telegraph, London)