Newcastle United climbed back into fourth place in the Barclaycard Premiership
as a ninth successive league win at St James' Park added to Liverpool's woes.
Laurent Robert's deflected 13th-minute free-kick was enough to see off the
Reds, who had midfielder Salif Diao sent off for two bookable offences on a
night when Gerard Houllier's injury-depleted side once again failed to hit the
They have now taken just four points from the last 30 and start 2003 lying
seventh in the table, 12 points adrift of leaders Arsenal.
By contrast, the Magpies are level on points with third-placed Chelsea and
have a game in hand on the three teams above them.
The absence of Michael Owen, who has scored 13 goals in nine appearances
against Newcastle, with a hamstring injury was reason enough for Sir Bobby
Robson to be delighted that the game was given the go-ahead after a 6pm pitch
inspection. But the smile on the 69-year-old's face could hardly have been
broader as he set of the dressing room at half-time.
Robson had described the St James' Park pitch on Sunday as a pudding, but it
was little short of a mudbath tonight.
A United side shorn of midfield trio Gary Speed, Kieron Dyer and Nolberto
Solano through injury, played slick football as deputies Jermaine Jenas, Brian
Kerr - making his first senior start for the club - and the outstanding Clarence
Acuna took the game by the scruff of the neck.
With Steven Gerrard and Salif Diao each picking up a yellow card within the
first seven minutes of the kick-off, Acuna and Jenas won the central midfield
battle hands down in the early stages - and with strikers Craig Bellamy and Alan
Shearer using their contrasting skills to put the Reds rearguard under pressure,
Shay Given and his defenders had merely to maintain a watching brief for long
Newcastle went in front when, after John Arne Riise had felled Shearer inches
outside the penalty area, Robert's wicked free-kick clipped striker Milan Baros
and sped inside Chris Kirkland's left-hand post.
Kirkland produced a brave block to deny Acuna a second with 22 minutes gone,
and the South American lifted a lob over the bar seconds later after thevisitors
failed to clear a Robert corner.
An underhit Andy O'Brien back pass apart, Given had little to trouble
himinside the opening half-hour - although he was called upon soon afterwards
when Gerrard let fly from distance and got his effort on target.
Shearer went within inches of his 14th Premiership goal of the season four
minutes before the break when he blasted a low shot just wide after Jenas had
tapped a short free-kick to him.
United had a late scare in the final minute of the half when O'Brien's slip
allowed Gerrard in, but Andy Griffin turned up in the nick of time to hack his
dangerous cross away.
Liverpool replaced Baros with 20-year-old Neil Mellor on 55 minutes, but it
was El Hadji Diouf who almost made the breakthrough two minutes later when he
went through on goal only to be denied by a superb challenge from O'Brien.
But their uphill task became almost vertical 11 minutes later when Diao, who
had been booked for a seventh-minute foul on Bellamy, lunged at Andy Griffin and
received his marching orders for a second yellow card.
Mellor forced a solid save from Given with a neat flicked header from aGerrard
free-kick, and Aaron Hughes managed to deflect a shot from the same player wide
after he had used his strength well to accept substitute Vladimir Smicer's
Diouf, who had also been booked early in the first half, was fortunate not to
follow Diao into the bath after a late 75th-minute challenge on Jenas.
Substitute Shola Ameobi had a golden opportunity to make sure of the victory
with six minutes remaining when Bellamy picked him out inside the box - but his
weak shot was cleared by Sami Hyypia in front of goal.
Kirkland kept out another Shearer piledriver at the death, but the points were
already safely banked.
Newcastle defender Andy O'Brien typified his team's determination as they
ground out a 1-0 win at home to out-of-form Liverpool.
Laurent Robert's early deflected free-kick proved to be the only goal in a
match played on a mudbath of a pitch as the Magpies climbed up to fourth in the
Barclaycard Premiership table.
The Reds had Salif Diao sent off for a second bookable offence on another
miserable night for Gerard Houllier.
O'Brien told Sky Sports: 'It was very difficult. I understand the pitch is
getting relaid in a few weeks but we're used to it. The team spirit is there,
and this was a vital win for us.
'We had it last season and we were just determined to get the three points.
We've just got to sort out our away form and then we hope we will be there or
'Liverpool had a few players missing, as we did, but we hope we can build on
this and come the end of the season we'll be there.
'We've just got to concentrate game by game and we hope we can keep going.'
Newcastle boss Sir Bobby Robson told Sky Sports: 'It was never an easy game
even when they lost a player. They never gave it up, and we had to defend quite
desperately to protect our goal.
'We've done that gradually over three years - and our perseverance, resolve
and toughness means it's not easy for teams to come here and win. If we could
play every game at home we could win the championship!
'I don't think we can win it - Arsenal and Manchester United are just that
bit ahead of us. Liverpool are slowly getting out of the chase. But they can get
back, I think.
'If we could do better away from home we could chase Arsenal and Manchester
United. It would be a very good team to beat us at home, with our work ethic.'
Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier conceded Newcastle's extra determination
helped them prevail.
'They won the battle. It was very physical, and they were better than us in
that area. I think we were a bit surprised by the pitch conditions - but we have
to recognise they were better than us on the day.
'The wall [for the free-kick with which Robert scored] was not good enough,
but it happens sometimes. The sending-off was the right decision. I can't argue
about that - he had to do it.'
Houllier retains faith in his team despite their recent poor form.
'We have the quality to get out of this run. Some players were missing today
- but we have the personnel to turn things around, not a problem.
'It will be difficult to catch up with Arsenal - they're 12 points ahead now
- but we never know what will happen in football.'