Restored Robert back in favour with Souness
Laurent Robert may not be the "modern wide worker" Graeme Souness would ideally like to see tracking back on his left flank but the French winger is undoubtedly enhancing the Newcastle's manager's job security.
Since Souness bowed to crowd pressure and restored the local favourite to his starting XI, Newcastle have won five successive games, yesterday's victory coming courtesy of a a Robert free-kick. Bent superbly around Liverpool's wall, it inflicted a deserved defeat on last week's Carling Cup losers, who arrived on Tyneside equipped with a game plan so cautious it left them almost entirely devoid of attacking ambition.
Goalkeeper Scott Carson, 19, making his debut for the visitors, was protected by a five-man rearguard which was shielded by Igor Biscan, who provided a bulwark between defence and midfield.
Even so, Carson had a lucky escape when he parried a Lee Bowyer volley into the path of Jean-Alain Boumsong. With Boumsong's flick deflecting wildly off Sami Hyypia, a bout of penalty-area Bagatelle ensued, only concluding when Titus Bramble's final touch flew off target.
Shola Ameobi then spurned a fine chance to open the scoring when, unmarked, he headed an inviting right-wing cross from the impressive Stephen Carr well over the bar. Very little had been seen of Liverpool, deploying Milan Baros as their lone forward, as a creative force but Souness could have done without seeing Amdy Faye, his midfield enforcer, booked for a totally unnecessary retaliatory tackle on Biscan.
Faye, a January signing from Portsmouth, had been preferred to Nicky Butt, who sat alongside his fellow England midfielder Jermaine Jenas on the substitutes' bench. Despite that booking, though, Faye continued to provide his team-mates with a highly reassuring midfield security blanket which played a part in ensuring Steven
Gerrard's increasingly frantic-looking long passes generally failed to reach their intended man. It also restricted Liverpool to just one effort on goal before the interval. Struck left-footed by Luis Garcia, that shot flew harmlessly over Shay Given's bar.
Gerrard, on the right of a midfield diamond where he cut a sometimes disgruntled-looking figure, was unable to exert much influence on proceedings. His booking for a foul on Boumsong - whose stoppage-time interception would later do just enough to force the England midfielder into shooting a couple of yards wide after dodging a couple of tackles - seemed borne of sheer frustration.
Liverpool's defensive quintet was, at least, succeeding in stifling the service from Kieron Dyer and Laurent Robert on Newcastle's flanks, thereby curtailing the threat from Alan Shearer and the disappointing Ameobi.
It left Carson with little to do, although he looked relieved when a long range Robert free-kick swerved just outside a post. Indeed, even with Patrick Kluivert - who, with Carson indecisive, missed a late sitter following Shearer's knockdown - newly liberated from the bench, a set-piece seemed the only likely source of a goal.
So it proved when Mauricio Pellegrino fouled Shearer. Once again Robert's devastating dead-ball ability paid dividends, his left-foot strike delivered from just outside the right-hand edge of the penalty area appearing to graze Carson's out-stretched fingers as it curled imperiously into the far top corner. It was the Frenchman's fourth goal of the season - significantly all have been from free-kicks.
This latest despatch certainly represented a kick in the teeth for Benitez who must privately feel that closing the gap on Everton is an increasingly forlorn task.
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