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Ken Early: Liverpool need Darwin Nunez if they are to keep Real Madrid guessing

If the striker is fit enough to play in this week’s Champions League showdown, he could be what Klopp’s side were missing in Paris

Sometimes it’s just not your day. Since their late, unlucky defeat at Anfield in August, Newcastle United had gone 17 Premier League matches unbeaten and conceded only seven goals. Goalkeeper Nick Pope had emerged as a hero, breaking a 41-year old club record by keeping 10 consecutive clean sheets in all competitions.

And yet after 22 minutes on Saturday night, Newcastle were already 2-0 down to Liverpool and Pope had been sent off for handling the ball outside his area. He will be suspended for next weekend’s Carabao Cup final - Newcastle’s first cup final for 24 years.

There could be few better illustrations of the essential chaotic randomness of the sport than the slapstick sequence that engulfed poor Pope. Rushing out to intercept a long kick-out from Alisson before Mohamed Salah could reach it, he underestimated the swerve and instead of heading it clear, succeeded only in falling face-first onto the ball as it bounced. He then grabbed at it with his hands – there’s the red card – to prevent it rolling to Salah, before getting up and clearing the loose ball into the stands, in the process accidentally booting his team-mate Kieran Trippier into the air.

“I think it was harsh” said Eddie Howe – but it wasn’t. It was just football.


Liverpool knew at the start of last week that they had reached the last possible moment to start turning their dismal campaign around, and with two victories since then they have at least kept the league season alive. But becoming the 12th team to beat Everton in the league, then winning at Newcastle on a night when everything that could go wrong for the home side did go wrong, does not yet amount to a convincing argument that Liverpool Are Back.

A bigger test comes tomorrow night against Real Madrid, the side who are responsible for three of their four Champions League eliminations since Jürgen Klopp arrived at Anfield.

The last of those defeats came in the final last June in Paris, a night which turned into a bitter disappointment for Liverpool and, according to the independent report released last week, was close to being much worse than that.

Darwin’s headline figures of six goals in 17 Premier League appearances are not good, but some of his underlying numbers are exceptional

One detail which will have stuck in Klopp’s memory was the comment by the victorious Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, who, in his jubilation, misplaced his usual tact. “I think it helped that Liverpool were easier to decipher than the others, because they have a very clear identity and we could prepare the way that we did,” Ancelotti said. “We knew what strategy to take – don’t give them space behind the defence to run into.”

One should keep in mind that this dig was probably directed more at Ancelotti’s critics in Spain than at Klopp and Liverpool. Ancelotti is always being criticised for not having any apparent football philosophy, a failing exacerbated by comparisons with Barcelona’s current coach, Xavi, the arch-ideologue of the Barça Way.

For Ancelotti this is not a failing but a strength: he would rather be the fox than the hedgehog. “Madrid do not have a clear identity, for the simple reason that we don’t want to have one,” he said a couple of weeks ago. “We are a team that knows how to do many things, not just one. And I like that.”

Still, the suggestion that his team was easy to work out stung Klopp, to the point that in October he talked openly of the need for Liverpool to “become unpredictable again”. For much of this season Liverpool have moved away from that old predictable identity by disintegrating completely, but their recovery in the last two games has much to do with the improving form and apparently growing confidence of the most unpredictable player at the club: Darwin Nunez.

Has there ever been such a Rorschach test of a player? Look at his goal against Newcastle. Was the control a brilliant piece of improvisation – or the combination of a bad touch and a lucky bounce? Did he slam the shot past Pope with the natural conviction of a born goalscorer – or was it the blind hit-and-hope of a chancer?

Darwin’s headline figures of six goals in 17 Premier League appearances are not good, but some of his underlying numbers are exceptional. He is averaging 5.48 shots per game, more than any other player in the top five European leagues. He leads this category by quite a distance, with nearly a full shot more per game than second-placed Lionel Messi.

He is second in shots on target per game, with 2.26, behind Robert Lewandowski (2.28) but ahead of Kylian Mbappé (2.21). These three are the only players who are averaging more than two shots on target per game out of the 2,710 footballers who have featured this season in Europe’s top leagues. (Erling Haaland is back in sixth place, on 1.84.)

To put that performance in perspective, Salah has never averaged as many as five shots per game or two shots on target per game during his six seasons at Anfield. In fact, over the last five seasons only five players in the top leagues have averaged more than five shots per game over a full season: Cristiano Ronaldo (three times), Messi (twice), Luis Muriel of Atalanta (also twice), Mbappé (once), and Lorenzo Insigne, then of Napoli (once).

That is elite company, and that is why Klopp still has reason to hope that his bet on Darwin will come good. With typical luck, just as it seemed to be coming together for him on Saturday night, he was chopped down by Trippier, jarred his shoulder, and had to come off. If he doesn’t make the squad for tomorrow night, Ancelotti will expect to find Liverpool as predictable as ever.