Sign of an ambitious team is for even an away draw to be regarded akin to a defeat, writes Ian Doyle
One by one, the Liverpool players walked through the exit at St James’ Park to be greeted by a cacophony of boos from the home supporters that stayed behind after the final whistle.
Yet the nearer they approached the waiting team bus, so those jeers swiftly transformed into pleas for autographs and photographs.
It was that kind of confusing afternoon for the Anfield outfit on Saturday, when what on paper appeared a decent result was instead rightly lamented as a missed opportunity.
The sign of an ambitious team is for even an away draw to be regarded akin to a defeat.
So it would have been encouraging for Brendan Rodgers that on the long trip back to Merseyside there was a definite sense of regret at what might have been.
Too true. Having played more than an entire half against 10 men, Liverpool were ultimately unable to overcome a Newcastle United side intent on atoning for the six-goal mauling they suffered at the hands of the same opposition less than six months earlier.
In pictures: Newcastle 2 LFC 2
There were mitigating circumstances, yes. The rigours of international duty during the previous week were apparent during a lacklustre showing during the first half, while late absences affected Rodgers’ selection.
But there will be no great cause for alarm, no need for soul-searching.
While their return to the Premier League summit may have been brief – Liverpool leapfrogged by both Arsenal and Chelsea later in the day – Rodgers’ side remain in a healthy position, eight points better off than at this stage last season.
Instead, Saturday’s maddening if hugely-entertaining draw merely underlined the shortcomings the Northern Irishman must address if his team are to maintain their challenge for a top-four finish and Champions League qualification.
The desire and character is there, Liverpool twice coming from behind to earn a point that ensures they have now lost only twice in their last 20 Premier League games.
But there remain some nagging suspicions, not least concerning the three centre-back system lately preferred by Rodgers given the available personnel.
His team have yet to keep a clean sheet since its introduction, while they were again undone on Saturday by an inability to defend a set-piece.
Like Manchester United, Southampton and Crystal Palace before them, Newcastle profited from slack marking as substitute Paul Dummett ghosted in at the far post away from a dozing Aly Cissokho to convert Yohan Cabaye’s deep dead-ball delivery.
With Rodgers having recently declared a switch from zonal to man-marking from set-pieces, the finger was pointed squarely at Cissokho.
The Frenchman has had an inauspicious start to his Anfield career having signed on a season-long loan from Valencia, crocked just minutes into his first start against Notts County back in August.
And while belatedly making a full Premier League debut at the weekend in place of the injured Jose Enrique, Cissokho was also partly at fault for Newcastle’s opener, failing to close down Cabaye who was allowed to advance almost 30 yards from the halfway line before smashing a swerving shot beyond Simon Mignolet.
To be fair, Cissokho improved the longer the game progressed and produced a fine saving challenge late on to deny Loic Remy.
On the other flank, Glen Johnson was quietly impressive on his return after seven weeks on the sidelines while at the heart of defence Martin Skrtel again shone brightest, most notably when nicking the ball off the toes of Remy during an increasingly breathless final quarter.
Further upfield, Jordan Henderson – given another chance in central midfield with Lucas Leiva attending his daughter’s birth – strengthened his claims to feature more regularly alongside Steven Gerrard with an efficient, effective display.
But Liverpool underwhelmed for vast periods of the game until finally making good their numerical advantage.
Newcastle were in the ascendancy before Cabaye’s cracker only for the afternoon to be transformed by Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa’s inevitable red card for hauling back Luis Suarez inside the penalty area shortly before half-time.
Gerrard swept the spot kick home for his 100th Premier League goal, only the 24th player to reach such a landmark and just the 12th in Liverpool’s history to register three figures in league football.
Having scored more goals at St James’ Park than any other away venue during the Premier League era, Liverpool, with the extra man, were expected to pick off a Newcastle defence that has already proven as leaky as a colander this season.
Yet only after Dummett’s goal on 57 minutes did Rodgers’ side finally spark into life, the partnership of Suarez and Sturridge having previously spluttered unconvincingly.
They were working in tandem for the equaliser 18 minutes from time. Fine play from the otherwise infuriating Victor Moses released Suarez down the inside left channel, and the Uruguayan clipped the ball over Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul for Sturridge to head home for his ninth goal in 10 games this season.
Suarez almost marked his 100th Liverpool appearance with a goal but saw his venomous shot strike the crossbar before, with the final action of the match, his free-kick was repelled by the flying Krul.
Cue frustration and disappointment among the visitors as Newcastle celebrated a well-deserved point against the odds.
Such emotions, though, should not linger too long.
With no distractions, save one further international break, until the New Year, Rodgers and his players know this is the time to capitalise on the overworked limbs of their nearest rivals.
MAN OF THE MATCH. Martin Skrtel. Another solid defensive display from the in-form Slovakia international
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-1-4-1): Krul; Debuchy, Williamson, Yanga-Mbiwa, Santon; Tiote; Gouffran, Cabaye (Anita 78), Sissoko (Dummett 45), Remy; Ben Arfa (Sammy Ameobi 78). Subs: Elliot, Cisse, Shola Ameobi, Obertan. BOOKINGS: Gouffran and Debuchy (both fouls).
SENDING-OFF: Yanga-Mbiwa (professional foul).
LIVERPOOL (3-4-1-2): Mignolet; Toure, Skrtel, Sakho (Alberto 63); Johnson (Sterling 83), Henderson, Gerrard, Cissokho; Moses; Sturridge, Suarez. Subs: Jones, Agger, Allen, Kelly, Flanagan. BOOKINGS: Gerrard, Toure and Sturridge (all fouls).
REFEREE: Andre Marriner.