Sturridge earns hollow victory to wrap up season of promise
Liverpool 2 Newcastle 1
Steven Gerrard would look at you and shake his head if you recited him the statistics: that it is 15 years since a seventh-placed Premier League team soared to second in their next campaign, and more than half a century since a club scored more goals than the 101 Liverpool have put away in the past nine months, yet still be denied a title.
At the start of this journey, when so many smiled condescendingly at Liverpool's aspirations for fourth, Gerrard would have taken the notion of supplying the goals which secured Liverpool second place. But the captain who trudged through the sunlit centre circle at around 4.30pm yesterday, moments after Liverpool's winner, had his head bowed, all emotion extinguished.
That's football for you – dragging your ambitions up in line with your accomplishments and leaving behind the quiet desolation that resides with Liverpool today. The players had just left the turf when stadium announcer George Sephton, discreetly imparting news of new champions "up the road", referenced the concept of "honourable second". Bill Shankly was the man who put to bed any notion of that position carrying value.
A sense of perspective is needed. A man with a parable for every occasion, manager Brendan Rodgers related the story of a letter he had received at the start of this season and read out to the players – "from Ben, LFC supporter" who, in response to the late summer talk of Liverpool striving for the top four, had implored him to think higher than that. "It was about the pride he had in the club and was (telling us) not just to think about fourth but to think about winning," Rodgers said. "I think at the time the players thought the letter was a bit far-fetched ... "
It didn't when he read it back to them yesterday. When the events of the past month are far enough behind him, Gerrard might also reflect on an extraordinary over-achievement: not so much breaking in but upending the established hegemony in a football world when the financial chasm between Liverpool and the richest clubs is so substantial.
Few others may achieve this. "People have invested millions and it's difficult to get in there," was how Rodgers diplomatically put it. "Man United have finished last season as champions and ended up ... seventh?"
With the old Anfield principles restored, Rodgers could assert last night that "yes" his side could take the next step and win next season's title, with perhaps five new names, and that, as he put it: "We will be back. We are a young group. We will add more players. Now we have got the belief."
When Newcastle led at half-time through a Martin Skrtel own goal, however, it looked as if they – a team in a state of civil war – were about to leave Liverpool with a season that had not so much tailed away as fallen off the edge of a cliff. The home side could not find a way through the grey wall while their own, yet again, was easily penetrated.
Their central defence had already been bisected twice by Shola Ameobi passes for Yoan Gouffran, and Liverpool might have trailed before Skrtel scored his fourth own goal of the season.
In a season characterised by his own interventions on the hoof, Rodgers changed the system – he went 4-3-4 – "to create a bit more space and get down the sides." Thus, Liverpool evaded a colossal anti-climax. Their goals, within two minutes of each other were replicas – Gerrard first winding a free-kick for Daniel Agger to get a foot on at the back post, and then another which Daniel Sturridge reached after Tim Krul flapped at it. Two senseless Newcastle dismissals – Ameobi and substitute Paul Dummett – killed the game.
The dismal stunt put on by those United fans desperate enough to hire a plane to run a "United 20 Gerrard 0" banner before the kick-off was followed up by Newcastle fans' rendition of the popular new chant about Gerrard on his "a***" which underlines how that slip against Chelsea may haunt him for all his days. Liverpool can help him. A league title, 25 years after their last one, is no longer beyond the bounds of belief. (© Independent News Service)