WHATEVER division Newcastle United are playing in next season, it was never going to boil down to a trip to Liverpool in early March, a venue where historically they have struggled to achieve results.

So the sooner the Newcastle camp can get over the latest defeat on Merseyside the better, even if Rafael Benitez was left disappointed with aspects of his organised team’s display that restricted his free-flowing former club to less chances than many anticipated.

It will be 24 years next month when the Magpies last won in the league at Anfield, and the forward line they were undone by on their latest visit to Merseyside was as good, if not better, than any of the others they faced during that winless period.

There is certainly no disgrace in being undone by goals from Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, goals which lifted Liverpool back up to second place in the Premier League, and goals at the other end were always less likely, given the way Benitez had set his team up.

The Newcastle boss has a different outlook on Tyneside than he did during his six years at Liverpool; he can only dream of being able to call on the attacking quality and riches being regularly sent out by Jurgen Klopp.

For a manager who had Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard driving the Reds on a title charge in 2009, when they came close to winning the Premier League, he is fully appreciative of what he was dealing with when he took on Liverpool on their own patch.

And for 39 minutes the Newcastle fans, who had travelled west in freezing temperatures, saw their side looking capable of keeping them at bay, even if there was a feeling that Klopp’s players were just waiting to kick into gear.

Newcastle midfielder Mikel Merino said: “Liverpool are a top side, a big club with quality players. They are winning a lot of games while we are battling against relegation.

“There was a big difference between the two sets of players technically but we tried our best, tried to defend together, but in the end they took their opportunities.

“It is difficult to defend for 90 minutes because they pass the ball so well and drag you out of position. They find spaces and you end up exhausted. Once they scored their first goal, it made it easier for them. In the second half, I think we kept pushing until the end and that is the positive we have to take from this game.”

With five at the back and a compact four in front, it was clear what Benitez was attempting to do from the outset. It was reminiscent of how Newcastle set up against Manchester City on Boxing Day, albeit at St James’ Park, rather than on their travels.

Skipper Jamaal Lascelles, who was fortunate not to be sent off late on when he tripped Salah as he charged through on goal, marshalled the backline well alongside Paul Dummett and Florian Lejeune, while goalkeeper Martin Dubravka was a steady pair of hands again.

The problem with setting up so defensively against a top team is that you invite pressure. And, when there was an opening to exploit, Liverpool did so with a chance that came from nothing.

When Jordan Henderson tried to flick a short pass sideways, Jacob Murphy blocked it. The ball fell kindly to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who saw the space in front of him and charged towards goal.

It looked like the former Arsenal man would shoot, so Lascelles was forced to move over to block, and that left Salah in space to be picked out, control and then finish between the legs of Dubravka.

Newcastle showed more attacking purpose in the final minutes of that opening half and had Loris Karius not made a stunning one-handed save to prevent Mo Diame’s curling effort from hitting the top corner then things would have been different after the restart.

But nine minutes into the second half Liverpool cleverly crafted the crucial second and that was effectively game over.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, Emre Can and the effective former Sunderland midfielder Jordan Henderson were all involved before Firmino brilliantly played in Mane to carefully curl a fine finish inside Dubravka’s left-hand post.

That intricate passing move sliced through the heart of Newcastle’s system. And while Newcastle can only admire such play in their first season back in the Premier League, there is an acceptance that Benitez can’t afford to set up his team to play so deeply against Southampton this Saturday and against Huddersfield on March 31.

Newcastle are only two points above top-flight safety and can’t afford to give the Saints and Terriers such a routine afternoon as the likes of Virgil van Dijk, who hardly had to break sweat, and Dejan Lovren enjoyed.

Despite the latest defeat, which blights a six-match winless run that had seen three draws and a victory over Manchester United improve things, there are still plenty of positives to take, not least the work-rate of the team and restricting the Salah, Mane and Firmino triumvirate to three shots on target.

Former Borussia Dortmund midfielder Merino said: “Our goal difference is always important for us and when we play big teams, we are not losing by big margins.

“Everyone can see the team is working hard and we know goal difference will be important.

“Some teams have come here and lost by many goals.

“I am not saying there is a good way to lose.

“A loss is a loss and in one way it does not matter if you lose 1-0 or 4-0.

“It is still zero points. It is not about much better psychologically to lose narrowly but it could be better position wise at the end of the season.

“Goal difference could be crucial.”

With the trip to Anfield out of the way, and with just nine matches remaining, Newcastle’s players can focus on the remaining two matches in March that could go a long way in determining their fate.

Merino said: “Every game is important and we try to approach every one with the same mentality, but maybe the next two games at home are a little bit easier than this one. We know the way we have to play is the same as we played against Manchester United and Bournemouth.

“After that Southampton game, we have a three-week break and it is always good to pick up a good result at a time like that.

“If you have a defeat, you have time to dwell.

“That is the worst thing. We have no intention of losing. We want to go into the break with a good mentality.”