NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, England — History continues to beckon for Liverpool and nobody will be able to question Jurgen Klopp’s players if they ultimately fall short of achieving an unprecedented Quadruple. Naby Keita‘s first-half goal against Newcastle United was enough to seal a 1-0 win at St James’ Park and extend Liverpool’s unbeaten Premier League run in 2022, but it still may not be enough to beat Manchester City to the title.
The two best teams in England, and arguably Europe, are on course to take the title race down to the final day of the season on May 22. There is also a strong possibility that they will meet again, six days later, in the Champions League final in Paris; both clubs head into this week’s semifinal second legs with aggregate leads against Villarreal (Liverpool lead 2-0) and Real Madrid (City lead 4-3).
But while Liverpool’s destiny is in their own hands in the Champions League and FA Cup final, where they face Chelsea at Wembley on May 14, they can only hope their best is good enough in the Premier League. For Klopp’s team to win a second title in three seasons, they need City to slip up somewhere. As Liverpool left Newcastle for the trip back to Anfield, they held top spot with a two-point advantage over City, but with Pep Guardiola’s team due to face Leeds United at Elland Road in Saturday’s late game, they knew they could be back in second by the time they returned to Merseyside.
Yet Liverpool are refusing to make City’s task any easier. Having played Villarreal at Anfield on Wednesday evening, facing Newcastle less than 72 hours later had all the hallmarks of being a game too far. Under Eddie Howe, Newcastle have been revitalised since the turn of the year and only Liverpool have a better Premier League record since Jan. 1. So if Liverpool were going to drop points anywhere, this appeared to be the most hazardous fixture between now and the final day, with a combination of Champions League fatigue and a confident home side threatening to conspire against Klopp and his players.
Klopp started the game with Mohamed Salah, Fabinho, Thiago Alcantara and Trent Alexander-Arnold on the substitutes’ bench in an effort to freshen his team up ahead of Tuesday’s second leg at Villarreal, so that was another pointer toward Liverpool falling short, but this was a day when their squad depth was borne out. “That’s the only reason we are where we are,” Klopp said about his squad after the game. “They are an exceptionally talented bunch of players.”
Keita, James Milner, Joe Gomez and Diogo Jota were all selected to fill the gaps and each of them made a significant contribution to the victory. Keita scored the only goal of the game, Milner set in motion the move for the goal by riding a Fabian Schaar challenge to move the ball to Jota, whose pass released Keita to score. And Gomez, making a rare start, made more than one crucial intervention on the right flank when Newcastle attempted to break forward.
Milner’s contribution was perhaps the most eye-catching, in the veteran’s understated way. At 36, the former Newcastle midfielder is only used sporadically by Klopp and this was his first Premier League start since the 2-2 draw at Chelsea on Jan. 2, but he controlled the game in the heart of the pitch and his experience was crucial on a day when Liverpool needed simply to get the job done.
“Milner was outstanding,” Klopp said. “He is incredibly important for us. He is very helpful in the dressing room, especially for a manager whose native language isn’t English, but he is important on the pitch too and he played a super game today.
“His age? Well, it’s maybe interesting to look at [Real Madrid midfielder] Luka Modric too. He’s also 36 I think, so what a generation of players that has been. But Milly is a role model and he has set standards in a way that have educated all of us.”
It was a mark of the respect that Milner commands in the game that, when he was replaced by Thiago on 78 minutes, he was applauded by all sides of St James’ Park. Milner left Newcastle in 2008, but his professionalism and contribution in a black-and-white shirt all those years ago continues to be remembered.
Time will tell as to whether Milner start another game this season, but it’s safe to assume he will be involved in every squad between now and that possible Champions League final at the Stade de France. As Klopp said, the fringe players such as Milner are why he is able to rest stars like Salah and Thiago and still be confident of earning crucial victories.
But Liverpool are now entering crunch time. Any failure to win in any competition will be a hammer blow to their hopes of a Quadruple, so every player has to turn up when selected. Klopp has been able to rely on each and every one of them so far, but he can’t control everything and even Liverpool’s undefeated run in the Premier League this calendar year may not be enough to win the title. If they can’t pip City in the Premier League, it won’t be down to a lack of effort, quality or persistence.