NEWCASTLE UNITED taking on Liverpool with the title at stake, controversy, a late winner and the Magpies coming off second best.

Saturday’s night’s thriller on Tyneside played like a tribute to the epic 4-3 of 1996, which is about as close to being involved in a title race as Newcastle get these days, forlornly looking on as their opponents stride onwards towards nail-biting climax to the season.

For Rafael Benitez’s side simply remaining in the top-flight to fight another day represents achievement, particularly having not won their first game of this campaign until November.

It has taken a monumental effort since, the culmination of expert coaching and tactical masterclasses by Benitez, to mould a team capable of accruing enough points to secure Premier League survival, with home form in the second half of the season crucial.

Since January there have been six home wins - Cardiff, Manchester City, Burnley, Huddersfield, Everton and Southampton – and there were occasions on Saturday when they looked like making it seven.

They remained in the contest right until the death, trading goals and scoring opportunities with the title hopefuls throughout on a night that will not be quickly forgotten.

It did not quite match the April ’96 encounter for drama, but few games ever will.

Liverpool led three times, Newcastle twice equalised, but they had no response to Divock Origi’s 86th minute header which gave the Reds a 3-2 win and put them back on top of the table, at least until City play Leicester this evening.

Nonetheless, Benitez was proud of his team’s performance on Saturday and over the course of the campaign which concludes at Fulham on Sunday.

“The way that we played, the commitment of the players, the togetherness of the players and fans was crucial,” he said.

“In terms of the performance, it was quite good and I am really proud of this group of players.

“To stay up was a good achievement and to play today against one of the best teams in Europe and to do it in the way that we did it from beginning to the end, is something that every Newcastle fan has to be pleased and happy with.”

In an attempt to thwart Liverpool, Benitez started with a five-man defence, explaining: “We have been analysing this, whether you have to play five at the back, three at the back.

“But sometimes it’s five because they are pushing all the time. We have had so many good games, we have had control. You have to manage with the tools that you have and we did it, bring the best from your players.

“At the beginning we were losing by one goal, and no-one expected after eight games that we stay in the PL. But little by little we got stronger, confident. The team was growing in terms of understanding the game.”

Once the Fulham fixture is out of the way there will be greater focus on whether Benitez can continue to work his magic on Tyneside, and supporters again made it clear they want him to stay.

Frequently they chanted his name during the game and during the post-match lap of appreciation too.

“This game was special because it was two group of fans I have a link and relationship with,” he said.

“It is always special when you do well and you go round the pitch. Sometimes you can see the faces and the smiles, and it is emotional but at the same really good.”

The match had been preceded by a giant banner being unfurled that covered the entirety of the Gallowgate End, a hugely impressive sight, setting the tone for a special evening.

It started like the infamous 4-3, frenetic with the teams trading chances, the Reds landing the first blow when Virgil van Dijk exploited woeful marking to head home in acres of space on 13 minutes after a Trent Alexander-Arnold corner.

But the Magpies soon levelled, 1-1 when Christian Atsu rammed home a loose ball after Alexander-Arnold had used a hand to clear off the line from Salomon Rondon.

There was no let up, and Alexander-Arnold was involved again when Liverpool retook the lead before the break, the right-back swinging the ball in for Mohamed Salah to guide the ball home with volley.

It was with his weaker right foot, it lacked venom, but was precise enough to beat Martin Dubravka, while Daniel Sturridge deserves credit for his backheel to Alexander-Arnold which teed up the cross by taking two Newcastle players out of the play.

Newcastle were still in this, however, and they started the second half with purpose, Alisson saving from Rondon, before the Venezuelan netted on 54 minutes, smashing home his 11th goal of the season.

It came from another corner, Ki the taker, and it set up a second period in which Liverpool were unable to find their rhythm and the pace relented a little, predictions of another 4-3 abated.

When Liverpool lost Salah when he collided with Dubravka, having been unable to select the injured Naby Keita and Roberto Firmino, it looked like it was not to be Liverpool’s night or season.

That would be, however, to discount the levels of resolve the Reds have shown, such as recently rescuing three points with late goals against Tottenham and Southampton, their character seeing them pull another win out of the fire.

Some of a Magpies persuasion still feel sore about the 4-3 in 1996 and will have hoped for some level of revenge, but this re-enactment saw Origi take the role of Stan Collymore by grabbing a dramatic late winner.

Sent on in place of Salah, he headed in at close-range after a free-kick taken by substitute Xherdan Shaqiri that should never have been awarded, given when Fabinho convinced assistant referee Simon Long he had been fouled by Matt Ritchie.

There was no deflated Kevin Keegan flopping over the advertising hoardings this time, but, as he might have said, Liverpool are still fighting for this title.

The Magpies again felt sore, but the Reds cared little for their moans. Robbie Fowler - who played in 1996 and was on media duties on Saturday – was unable to stop himself punching the air, as did pockets of Liverpool fans who had obtained tickets among the Newcastle seats.

“The third goal is not a foul and the other two we could do much better,” said Benitez.

“We are playing against a very good team and conceded goals from set-pieces.

“That is disappointing, but it also means you have done a good job to stop clear chances.

“But when you concede and then you react, then you concede and then you react again, it is fine. But you cannot make these mistakes.”