Newcastle's final game of the season comes at Anfield on Sunday against a Liverpool side still in the hunt for the Premier League title.
Liverpool have been exceptional this season and have taken fans and pundits by surprise with their free-flowing, attacking football. Very few people predicted that they'd still be in the hunt as the last game comes around.
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This Liverpool side forged by their manager Brendan Rodgers remind me of happier times at Newcastle watching Kevin Keegan's 'Entertainers', although while it took Keegan's brilliant side of '96 several weeks to dismantle their own title hopes, Liverpool might well have done it in a matter of minutes when their 3-0 lead collapsed into a draw at Crystal Palace on Monday night with Dwight Gayle's late equaliser being Liverpool's very own "Collymore closing in" moment.
I've made the Entertainers comparison a couple of times on Twitter lately and the most common response has been that Liverpool are better defensively. While there is no doubting that Keegan's men lacked some quality at the back, this claim is untrue as Newcastle conceded only 37 goals in their 95-96 campaign; Liverpool have already conceded 49 this term. The real difference comes in the scoring of goals: Liverpool have bagged a phenomenal 99 already this season (they'll definitely pass the 100 mark on Sunday) but, as entertaining as they were, Newcastle scored only 66 in their title challenge.
The match will also highlight an extreme contrast in terms of management: Rodgers has taken a team and made players far better -- Jordan Henderson and Jon Flanagan are great examples. He has them playing exciting, modern, attacking and possession-based football. Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, on the other hand, has overseen a frightening regression in players at Newcastle: Tim Krul, Davide Santon, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Hatem Ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse to name but a few. In fact it is almost impossible to name players who have really progressed under his leadership -- certainly none to the extent of Henderson and Flanagan. Pardew's 'style' of football couldn't be more different either. He favours graft, caution and a 1990's classically English mentality that is rarely pleasing on the eye.
These are just some of the reasons that the overwhelming majority of Newcastle supporters and the local press have turned on their manager in the past couple of weeks. Many national commenters are missing the point though. Earlier this week on national sports radio, a presenter claimed that "even [Pep] Guardiola and [Jose] Mourinho couldn't do a better job at Newcastle than Pardew". Utter uninformed nonsense. Even Pardew's most ardent supporters, mostly his pals in the media, couldn't argue that Pardew could have Rodgers' Liverpool squad competing for the title if it was his job. I don’t believe they'd even be in the top six.
As for the match itself, the ball is very much in Manchester City's court as far as the title goes. I'd hoped to see Newcastle win 4-3 at Anfield, ruining Liverpool's hopes. There'd be a certain footballing poetry in that even if it is as unlikely as Pardew inventing the next generation of tiki-taka style football.
City probably only need a draw at home to West Ham to claim the honours as their goal difference is far superior to Liverpool's. As long as Liverpool have hope though, they'll be bombarding Newcastle from the opening seconds backed by a frantic Anfield crowd. This could be an absolute thrashing for Newcastle. They've looked totally disinterested since Premier League status was maintained several months ago and if they approach the game as they have most of the last 20, they'll be hammered. Their best hope is that City grab a couple of early goals and kill the Liverpool mood.
Newcastle will once again be without Papiss Cisse and Davide Santon while Liverpool won't have the services of former Newcastle favourite Jose Enrique or Henderson.
Liverpool are currently around 5/1 with the bookmakers while Newcastle are way out at 12/1, either of which could reflect the scoreline on the day.