There were four minutes of normal time to go when the ball flicked off the head of Divock Origi and bulged the net.
High, high in the Leazes Stand behind the goal, a guttural roar of relief and exultation exploded from the Liverpool fans stationed there and spread out across the city of Newcastle below.
It felt as if the roar came from the skies. After a night when all seemed lost, their team was still alive.
After a night when the relentless title race between Jurgen Klopp’s side and Manchester City finally seemed to be coming to an end, when everything seemed to be going wrong for Liverpool, when their season seemed to be collapsing around them, they refused to let the dream die. And so one of the greatest of all English title races is going down to the wire. Right down to the wire.
Liverpool had gone ahead twice at St James’s Park but twice Newcastle had pegged them back and as the Gallowgate choir found its voice, Rafa Benitez’s side had begun to sense victory. Then Liverpool’s goal machine, Mohamed Salah, was felled in a collision with Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka and was carried off on a stretcher.
After the 3-0 defeat to Barcelona at the Nou Camp on Wednesday, this felt like Liverpool’s Armageddon. Everything was fading. Defeat would have meant City could clinch the title with victory over Leicester at the Etihad tonight. A draw would have meant that City only needed four points from their final two games. It would have been over.
But then the two substitutes intervened. As Liverpool teetered on the brink, Xherdan Shaqiri curled in a free kick from the right, Origi flicked it on, and even though it deflected off the head of Jamaal Lascelles, it flew beyond Dubravka.
And so Liverpool fight on. And so this team that have been locked in such a compelling duel with City will host Wolves on the final day still in with a chance of overhauling City, who will be at Brighton. After all that has passed in this season where they have lost only once, it is the least they deserve.
They survived the law of the ex by beating the team marshalled by their former boss Benitez. Now they have to rely on the lure of the ex and hope another former boss, Brendan Rodgers, can lead his Leicester team to a shock in Manchester tonight.
There were some conspiracy theorists, of course, who suggested Newcastle would give Liverpool a free pass because Benitez is still revered by the red half of Merseyside and that the affection is reciprocated by Benitez. But to think that Benitez might somehow tell his players to go easy on Liverpool for old time’s sake is to misunderstand fundamentally the mentality of Benitez.
Sure, he may have managed Liverpool between 2004 and 2010, winning the Champions League and FA Cup, and he may be part of the iconography that extends from Shankly to Paisley to Fagan to Dalglish and onwards. But Benitez is also a relentlessly competitive animal, an obsessive who is always desperate to prove his worth and his ability to outwit a rival. The idea he might be somehow compromised by wanting Liverpool to win the league was absurd.
The morale of Liverpool fans took a blow before the start when the team sheets revealed that Roberto Firmino, such a crucial creative influence in Klopp’s side, was not in the starting eleven and had not even made the bench.
Firmino, who is suffering from a groin injury, made a cameo appearance at the end of the Champions League semi-final first leg defeat to Barcelona on Wednesday and it was hoped he would be ready to start against Newcastle. His absence did not calm the frayed nerves of Liverpool’s support.
This was too big a game for Liverpool to be distracted by the prospect of the return against the Spanish champions at Anfield on Tuesday but it would not have escaped their notice that Barcelona were luxuriating in the fact that they have already won the Spanish league when they named their team for their match against Celta Vigo.
MATCH FACTS, LEAGUE TABLE & MATCH ZONE
Newcastle: Dubravka; Manquillo, Schar, Lascelles, Dummett, Ritchie; Perez, Ki, Hayden, Atsu; Rondon
Subs: Darlow, Shelvey, Diame, Barreca, Kenedy, Fernandez, Muto
Goals: Atsu 20, Rondon 54
Liverpool: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Lovren (Milner 83), Van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum (Shaqiri 66); Mane, Sturridge, Salah (Origi 73)
Subs: Mignolet, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Matip, Gomez
Goals: Van Dijk 13, Salah 28, Origi 85
Season at a glance:
Team P GD Pts 1 Liverpool 37 65 94 2 Manchester City 36 68 92 3 Tottenham Hotspur 37 28 70 4 Chelsea 36 21 68 5 Arsenal 36 20 66 6 Manchester United 36 13 65 7 Wolverhampton Wanderers 37 3 57 8 Everton 37 8 53 9 Leicester City 36 4 51 10 Watford 36 -1 50 11 West Ham United 37 -6 49 12 Crystal Palace 37 -4 46 13 Bournemouth 37 -12 45 14 Newcastle United 37 -10 42 15 Burnley 37 -21 40 16 Southampton 37 -20 38 17 Brighton and Hove Albion 36 -22 35 18 Cardiff City 37 -37 31 19 Fulham 37 -43 26 20 Huddersfield Town 36 -54 14
Barcelona rested Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Gerard Pique, Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto for their match at Celta Vigo last night. Liverpool’s situation, locked in an epic title battle to the end, could scarcely have been more different.
Liverpool, though, rose to the challenge. It is what they have done all season. Daniel Sturridge, starting in Firmino’s place, played two raking passes in the opening minutes that carved Newcastle’s defence apart. Mo Salah, who looked razor-sharp from the whistle, fired wide twice from difficult half-chances.
It still only took Liverpool 12 minutes to take the lead and prompt an explosion of relief from their supporters high in the top tier of the Leazes End. It was so simple when it came that it felt like a gift. Trent Alexander-Arnold swung over a corner from the Liverpool right, Van Dijk lost his marker and rose on the edge of the six-yard box to head powerfully down and past Martin Dubravka.
Any thought that this might be a stroll for Liverpool, though, was soon dispelled. Their lead only lasted eight minutes. When Matt Ritchie collected the ball on the Newcastle left, he drove it across goal where Salomon Rondon turned it goalwards.
Alexander-Arnold was on the line and he blocked it with his elbow. It was a clear handball offence but as Newcastle began to appeal, the ball rebounded to Christian Atsu and he rifled it past Alisson and into the net. Maybe Liverpool got lucky. If Newcastle had not scored, Alexander-Arnold would have been sent off and Liverpool would have had to play three quarters of the match with 10 men.
But now the atmosphere changed completely. Suddenly, this did not feel like a meaningless end of season game for Newcastle. The crowd’s blood was up and every attack was met with a roar that echoed across the city that spreads out below this cathedral of a stadium.
Newcastle were rampant and Liverpool were rattled. They did not seem able to cope with the muscular presence of Rondon and soon they went close to taking the lead. Ayoze Perez made the chance himself, flicking the ball up and then lashing it against the crossbar from an angle with Alisson beaten. In Manchester, they must have been putting the champagne on ice.
Then Liverpool stemmed the bleeding. Sturridge seemed to be hemmed in but played a short pass back to Alexander-Arnold near the corner flag. The Liverpool full back, who is such a delicious crosser of the ball, swung a ball deep into the box and Salah met it with his right foot, cushioning it carefully and meticulously with his right foot and guiding it low past Dubravka’s right hand.
Liverpool started the second half well and Robertson astonishing energy began to force opportunities. Unfortunately, the best fell to Sturridge, who blazed the chance high over the crossbar, prompting Klopp to turn away on the touchline in disgust.
Nine minutes after the break, Newcastle were level. Ki Sungyueng swung over a corner from the right that Liverpool only half-cleared. When it was nodded back in to the box, Rondon peeled away from Mane and when the ball dropped perfectly for him, he drilled it past Alisson with his left foot.
Liverpool seemed stunned by this second equaliser and Newcastle sensed their vulnerability. They began to feel like they could win this game, not just play a reluctant foil to Liverpool’s onward march. Then Liverpool’s night took another unwelcome turn.
Salah chased a long ball into the box and as Dubravka rushed out to clear it, Salah’s head appeared to collide with the goalkeeper’s hip. Salah lay motionless for several minutes as he was treated by physios and was then eased on to a stretcher. He was conscious when he disappeared down the tunnel but it seems unlikely he will be available for Tuesday’s reunion with Barcelona.
It seemed then that Liverpool were about to fade away. Cue Origi and the roar from the skies.