Newcastle United-Liverpool Preview
Anfield will forever be grateful to Rafa Benitez for his "Miracle at Istanbul" in which Liverpool rallied from a 3-0 halftime deficit to defeat AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final.
Given his personnel and Newcastle's prolonged run of misery at Anfield, keeping the Magpies in the Premier League could eventually be the bigger accomplishment as he returns to Liverpool on Saturday desperate for points against a Reds team firing on all cylinders after an emphatic derby victory.
"Hopefully the game away against a very good team like Liverpool, we can see the same reaction, but you never know," Benitez told the league's website after Newcastle's spirited 1-1 draw against Manchester City on Tuesday. "We have belief now that we can fight, that we can beat anyone, and in the next game we must show that."
Benitez's first season on Merseyside was an adventure capped with that incredible victory in Turkey, but his relationships with the board and ownership had strained by the time of his departure in 2010, and that was despite Liverpool's runner-up Premier League finish the previous season in which many thought the Reds were tipped to re-establish their dominance once more.
His exit began a nomadic run of coaching stints - starting with an ill-fated six-month stint at Inter Milan in 2010 and later a caretaker spell at Chelsea in the 2012-13 season. Benitez made his only previous return to Anfield that season, and that match became infamous for striker Luis Suarez's bite of Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic.
From Chelsea, it was back to Italy and Napoli, where Benitez lasted two seasons. He then failed to last a full season at Real Madrid, where a humbling 4-0 home loss in "el clasico" to Barcelona was a heavy factor in his January firing.
He surfaced at Newcastle (7-8-19) in March, accepting the Sisyphean task of cleaning up the mess left by predecessor Steve McClaren, though he protected himself with a contract clause to have the option to leave Tyneside should they be relegated.
At the time of his arrival, the Magpies were 19th on 24 points and one point from safety as a three-way tango with Norwich City and North East neighbours Sunderland emerged, a dance that will end with two of them being relegated to the Championship along with once Premier League ever-present Aston Villa.
Nearly six weeks later, the Magpies are still 19th - now on 29 points - and two points from safety while still fighting with the Canaries and Black Cats for that all-important 17th spot as the carrot of £100 million in television rights money for 2016-17 tantalisingly dangles before them.
But there is, at least, fight in the Magpies. Vurnon Anita's goal just after the half-hour canceled out a contentious one by Sergio Aguero after replays showed the star striker was clearly offside getting to Aleksandar Kolarov's free kick.
"It's a good point for us because we always knew it would be a very tough game," midfielder Jack Colback told nufc.co.uk. "We have to see it as a point gained. Obviously, the goal they scored was unfortunate but City are a top side ... but we showed a lot of fight and character and I think we definitely deserved a point."
Still, one point is better than none, and Newcastle are going to need every last one of them to avoid their second relegation in eight seasons. While the mood has brightened at St James' Park, reversing their abject form on the road will be a stern challenge. The Magpies have dropped a Premier League-era club-record nine on the bounce outside Newcastle by a combined 19-5 scoreline - 10 if considering their FA Cup exit at Watford - and have taken just seven points in 17 road matches (2-1-14).
"It's a massive test, but we're really looking forward to it," defender Jamaal Lascelles said. "We've got to keep our heads. We can't get complacent because we've had a win and a draw, we've not had it much this season, so the main thing for us is to stay professional."
That has proven to be a challenge for more than two decades worth of visits to Anfield, where Newcastle have not won a league match since a 2-0 victory in 1994. The Magpies have dropped nine of the last 10 there as part of a 0-3-17 stretch there during which they've been outscored 50-16.
Professional, though, is what Liverpool (15-9-9) have been, winning four on the trot while enjoying a stunning run to the Europa League semifinals and a late charge up the table. The Reds are seventh on 54 points and still on the fringes of vying for a Champions League spot if they fail to win the Europa title.
Jurgen Klopp's team is coming off another highlight victory, a 4-0 thrashing of Merseyside neighbours Everton on Wednesday at Anfield. Divock Origi and Mamadou Sakho each found gaps in the porous Toffees' defence to convert crosses from James Milner right before the interval, and Liverpool turned on the class after Everton were reduced to 10 men as Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho added goals.
"With the consistency now, we have been together longer, we have worked together. Now we are here with 54 points - that's not too bad with still 15 to get," Klopp said. "Consistency comes with working together. In each game we've had a different formation - Stoke, Dortmund, Bournemouth, today - but you always see a few parts of our style of play.
"We are not only a pressing and counter-pressing team, we are a possession team too and it's a challenge to bring it all together. We will still work on it, it is not finished."
Klopp may be faced with one lineup change since Origi was forced to leave after Everton defender Ramiro Funes Mori stamped his ankle. With five goals and an assist in his last six league matches, Sturridge appears the logical choice should Origi not be match-ready.
"I went to Divock in the medical room and I saw him smiling," Klopp told Liverpool's official website. "The ankle is twisted so we have to wait and see what happens to the ligaments. That's how it is. I can't say more."