The world will be watching this one, with so many wondering if we can shatter Liverpool’s hopes of a Premier League title – but that won’t be the main thought entering my head as I take my seat at St James’ Park here.
I for one will just be hoping (and praying!) this isn’t Rafa’s last home game in charge of Newcastle United. The lap of honour at full-time could be brilliant yet bittersweet, with us desperate to know that any wave from Benitez won’t be the last one we see inside St James’ Park.
His latest comments suggest there’s been ‘positive talks’ and that progress has been made behind the scenes, but we can’t afford to get too excited until an official statement is released.
Either way, this one has the makings of a pretty memorable night at St James’ Park. A bank holiday weekend, the last home game of the season and a chance for us to sign off the season in style with a result that could decide the title race.
I’m not sure if we’ll be able to stop this Liverpool side, but wouldn’t it be fitting if we pulled it off in what could be Benitez’s last game at St James’ Park.
With Lascelles back and Perez expected to start after recover from the knock that forced him off at Brighton, the team for this one may be pretty straight forward.
The only change may be the formation. It’ll have the same feel to it, but a 3-4-3 may become a 5-4-1 for this one, with us having a big job on our hands to stop Robertson and Mane down their left and Alexander-Arnold and Salah down their right.
I expect Atsu and Perez to play out wide, being tasked to carry the ball up the pitch and retain possession on the rare occasion we have it, whilst also getting back and protecting their full-back when Liverpool have it.
A three-man defence of Dummett, Lascelles and Schar looks likely now the skipper’s recovered from ‘illness’, but the one area of the pitch that’s hard to predict is who will partner Isaac Hayden in midfield.
Ki has done that more than anyone else over the past month, but has he got the legs to deal with an energetic Liverpool midfield? Shelvey started at Brighton and could be the one player who could unlock the door or set us up on the counter with a pinpoint pass, but does he have the discipline and defensive awareness to track Liverpool runners? The there’s Diame. He’s strong defensively and needs to start this one if he’s to have any chance of activating a one-year contract extension, but I’d argue he’s a little clumsy and limited on the ball for a game that requires us to make the most of the few times we’ll have possession in midfield.
Some will also be calling for Yedlin to start over Manquillo given we’ll be up against the explosive Sadio Mane down that side, but the Spaniard has been solid in recent weeks and doesn’t deserve to be dropped for me. Also, Yedlin may have pace, but no amount of speed would allow him to recover in time if he switched off against Robertson or Mane.
Preferred NUFC XI – (5-2-2-1) – Dubravka – Manquillo, Schar, Lascelles, Dummett, Ritchie – Hayden, Shelvey – Perez, Atsu – Rondon.
Aside from the obvious candidates (Salah, Mane, Van Dijk), here’s a few ‘ones to watch’ in Jurgen Klopp’s side:
Trend Alexander-Arnold: The young right-back looks an incredible talent and will almost certainly start this one after being left out in Barcelona. His range of passing is exceptional and his delivery – both from open play and set pieces – is brilliant. The focus may be on Salah down this side, but Atsu can’t afford to give Alexander-Arnold room down their right.
Roberto Firmino – He wasn’t deemed fit enough to start at the Nou Camp on Wednesday but his cameo off the bench suggests he could start at St James’. He’s the link man in between Mane and Salah and is a very intelligent player who’ll be much harder to mark than potential replacement Daniel Sturridge.
Andy Robertson – The marauding left-back has been absolutely brilliant this season, being tenacious in his defensive work and an assist-machine at the other end. If he bags another he’ll break Leighton Baines record (11) and move onto 12 for the league season. Considering Manquillo or Yedlin will already have their hands full with Mane, Perez has a big task to track Robertson’s runs down their left.
Predicted Liverpool XI – Alisson – Alexander-Arnold, Lovren, Van Dijk, Robertson – Henderson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum – Salah, Firmino, Mane.
Jamaal Lascelles and Ayoze Perez look set to be available after taking part in training this week (see picture below), with the former recovering from illness and the latter overcoming the knock that saw him come off early in last weekend’s draw at Brighton.
Florian Lejeune and Sean Longstaff will miss out once again, but it sounds like Longstaff is well on track to return for pre-season training.
For Liverpool, £50m midfielder Naby Keita has been ruled out for the season after limping of in Barcelona.
Roberto Firmino wasn’t deemed fit enough to start their Champions League semi-final on Wednesday and Klopp has said ‘we’ll see..’ regarding his involvement from the start at St James’ Park.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is expected to return after missing their 3-0 defeat at the Nou Camp, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is back in full training and could feature after a lengthy absence.
Make no mistake about it, this will be a game involving two teams that are desperate to win – albeit for two very different reasons.
We’ll be desperate to sign off in style at St James’ and give Benitez a big win in what could be his last home game as Newcastle manager, while Liverpool will be determined to keep their title hopes alive – especially now their Champions League semi-final looks all but over thanks to a 3-0 defeat in Barcelona.
I expect us to line-up with a 5-4-1 formation, have little of the ball and aim to frustrate a Liverpool side full of pace, intensity and ideas, but I do fear they’ll have just a bit too much for us to handle.
That said, our home win over Man City gives me hope that we might just be able to pull off a big upset, so you just never know..
Prediction: Newcastle 1-2 Liverpool
Howay the lads!