Last August, it was Darwin Nunez who lost his head. A year on, as Liverpool’s captain and vice-captain led by the wrong sort of example and as they threatened to unravel at Newcastle, Nunez served as rescuer.
A man down, a goal down, almost two adrift, a first loss in 14 league games beckoned for Liverpool. Enter Nunez, the £64m afterthought, the player sent off on his Anfield debut for headbutting Joachim Andersen. Now the fifth-choice forward, he clinched an improbable comeback; a swift brace turned a damaging setback into a seminal victory. Suddenly, the more costly of two meltdowns was Newcastle’s.
They contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They can reflect on two moments to transform the mood at St James’ Park and the feel of their start to the season. The first, when Diogo Jota’s pass bounced off Sven Botman and Nunez drilled a shot past Nick Pope. The second, when Bruno Guimaraes lost the ball, Mohamed Salah provided a slide-rule pass and Nunez again turned executioner.
His finishing can be erratic but twice it was unerring: this was what Liverpool paid what could become a club-record fee for.
As it is, their record buy had long since departed: Virgil van Dijk, often the cool cat of defending, turned into raging bull when he saw red. His choice of words to referee John Brooks and fourth official Craig Pawson may add to his sanction. And yet, on the day, it was Newcastle who were punished.
The scale of the missed opportunity was huge: they finished the game facing Liverpool’s fourth- and fifth-choice centre-backs, with Jarell Quansah making a debut in the final stages. He was not the most significant substitute – that mantle rested with Nunez – but Liverpool won 2-0 with the rookie on the pitch.
Indeed, they triumphed 2-0 in the time after Van Dijk’s dismissal. Newcastle twice almost doubled their lead, Alisson making a superb save to turn Miguel Almiron’s volley against the crossbar and then the Paraguayan striking the upright again after a mesmeric solo run.
And yet they lost their impetus in the second half; Liverpool had mislaid their composure before the break and regained it as the game went on, leading to a credibility-defying climax.
The early excellence of Anthony Gordon became in vain, an Evertonian suffering his latest defeat to Liverpool.
For Newcastle, Klopp’s side remain the final frontier: they have had flagship results against virtually everyone else but they have now suffered five home league defeats under Eddie Howe: three of them to Liverpool.
This was the most illogical triumph of them all. It had shaped up as a chastening afternoon for the men promoted to replace the departed Jordan Henderson and James Milner. The new skipper Van Dijk was sent off, though only after his deputy, Trent Alexander-Arnold, could have been. Instead, his enduring presence on the pitch benefited Newcastle when his error allowed Gordon to open the scoring.
The centre-back had one tackle to rue – or seethe about, given his reaction when he saw red; the right-back had a different kind of torment, failing his trial by Gordon. Alexander-Arnold could have been dismissed after six minutes: unfortunate to be cautioned, he was then fortunate to avoid a second yellow card. A blatant check on Gordon was a bookable offence, but he had already had his name taken.
Gordon was a waspish irritant but he is an irregular scorer. Just the ninth goal of his senior career came with an unlikely provider. Salah was to add to his surfeit of assists for Liverpool. He inadvertently provided a goal for Newcastle, overhitting a pass to Alexander-Arnold. The right-back should still have controlled it: instead it rolled away from him, into the path of Gordon, who slotted a shot past Alisson. Kissing the Newcastle badge may have gone down badly with both halves of Merseyside.
He may yet prove popular on Tyneside, however. The agent provocateur proved he can play. This was the best performance of his brief Newcastle career and he supplied the pass to Alexander Isak when the striker was challenged by Van Dijk. The Dutchman argued he got the ball; referee Brooks thought he went through the striker first, rendering it a goalscoring opportunity. Exit – eventually, after his protests – Van Dijk, and Liverpool’s chances seemingly disappeared with him.
Yet a second half offered a second chance. Liverpool were reconfigured in a 4-4-1 formation. Klopp’s changes made an impact. Howe may regret his own substitutions, particularly removing Gordon. Freed from his clutches, Alexander-Arnold got a hint of redemption with a pass in the move that led to Nunez’s equaliser. And, after a chaotic game, Nunez, the agent of chaos, may have been a strangely fitting match-winner.