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Sir Bobby day unlikely to halt the red tide


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It is a noon kick-off, a mere 40 drowsy hours since the Boxing Day games ended and Newcastle United lost at Wigan for the fourth season in a row. Clattered by fresh injuries to both full-backs, Newcastle, two points above third-bottom Stoke, now face Liverpool as 7-2 outsiders on their own turf.


We have not even touched on the overall state of the club. Apprehension should be guaranteed therefore, yet St James' Park may produce an atmosphere to remember today.


Unofficially, fans have turned this fixture into a tribute to Sir Bobby Robson. For a few minutes at least – perhaps until Steven Gerrard begins orchestrating affairs – organisers hope that St James' will be a sea of black and white. Robson, 76 in February and suffering his fifth bout of cancer, will hear his name ring out from his seat in the directors' box. Despite undergoing chemotherapy, Robson will be present again.


Amid the poignancy, however, Robson may reflect that as 2008 becomes 2009, Newcastle will be into year 82 since they last won a League title. There has been a lot of focus on Liverpool's long wait, but it is a couple of minutes at the bus stop compared with Newcastle's meandering stagger across the decades.


A legitimate concern for the vast majority of today's 52,000 supporters is that they will witness a statement of intent from Liverpool. Friday's impressive 3-0 win over Bolton at Anfield kept the Reds top of the Premier League, the first time they have been there at this stage of the season since 1996. (Then they finished fourth, two places behind Newcastle).


Friday's win also meant that at the halfway stage Liverpool are five points better off than last season. That offers no guarantees in the season's second half, but a growing consensus is that this is Rafael Benitez's best squad.


Four years into the post, the manager entered this season with Liverpool not having won under him at any of their three main rivals' grounds in the League. In October, Liverpool changed that record at Chelsea, last weekend they drew at Arsenal. Manchester United are still to be visited – in March, four days after Real Madrid have been to Anfield – but there is proof of progress.


"It is good to still be top and we hope to still be there going into the new year," Benitez's assistant, Sammy Lee, said after the Bolton match. "It will be tough against Newcastle, a very difficult task, but on this form we are looking forward to it.


"What was pleasing was the quality of our play and the patience we showed in possession. It is only December, nobody should be getting carried away. But being top of the table shows the improvement this season."


After consecutive stuttering draws at home to Fulham, West Ham and Hull, that shade of opinion was in doubt. But the convincing nature of Friday's win was greeted as much as the points. On Merseyside, much was made of the fact that the Kop started to sing about being the top of the League with some gusto. There are stirrings of belief.


"It was a statement from us," said Robbie Keane, Chelsea and United having played earlier in the day and won. Keane's sudden confidence is one of the reasons why Liverpool fans are beginning to believe. In his past two performances the Irishman has displayed why £20 million was spent on him. Another reason, possibly worrying for Keane, is that Fernando Torres has missed December so far, and Liverpool are top of the League without a goal from the Spaniard since early October.


That Keane has blossomed in Torres' absence is noted by all. How Benitez accommodates both – or not – could define Liverpool's challenge. "I enjoyed the position I played against Bolton [off the front man]," Keane said. "That's my best position and where I have played for the last 10 years, I enjoy it." Diplomatically, Keane added: "But wherever the boss wants me to play, I will do it for the team, that's the most important thing."


There is speculation that Torres may make his return today from the bench. The strength of Liverpool's squad would be reinforced if he does. Javier Mascherano, who has missed the last two matches, is also expectedto come back.


Compared to Newcastle's thin and thinning squad, this would be a demonstration of Red power and continuity. Joe Kinnear, like Kevin Keegan before him, has lamented his decreasing options. At various points in the past few weeks Kinnear has discussed incoming players in January, and has said that he wants to recruit "four". Michael Owen's true feelings on his present and former club would be fascinating to know.


As for Bobby Robson, he can sit back and enjoy a generous outpouring of affection.




maybe we can have a say in this, the Scousers will be in fine voice for SBR day so lets hope we all are too.

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