It took Darwin Nunez a year to make an impact at Liverpool, but he couldn’t have timed it better. Two goals from the Uruguayan forward as a late substitute at Newcastle United on Sunday turned defeat into victory for Jurgen Klopp’s side and finally showed us what all the fuss was about.
Nunez has gone hot and cold since arriving from Benfica in the summer of 2022 in a club-record transfer in a deal that could cost Liverpool £85 million. He has shown flashes of world-class ability, but more often than not, those brief flashes have been overshadowed by poor finishing, erratic decision-making and a short fuse that has allowed opponents to distract him and render him close to a liability. times
But Nunez always had something. He is a diamond in the rough that will take time to polish into the finished article, yet his ability to frustrate fans, teammates and Klopp alike saw the 24-year-old going into this season doubting whether he could be the real deal. For Liverpool.
Two important goals in St. James Park, which secured a 2-1 win for Liverpool despite a 28th-minute red card for captain Virgil van Dijk that saw him reduced to ten men, would not have dispelled those doubts well, but the ruthless way Nunez took his chances. It will come as a huge relief for Klopp as his side need Nunez to come out better than ever this season.
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“Nunez was a super performer,” Klopp said. “He was sent off obviously not starting. It’s clear he’s not happy. It’s early in the season, we have to find stability and results, but he’ll play, no doubt.”
“But he scored two goals and he couldn’t get the smile off his face.”
Having been signed as part of Liverpool’s plans for the future without Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah, Nunez endured a difficult first season at Anfield. He scored just nine goals in the Premier League and a further six in other competitions, so his year-end report card would have five in the top ten.
But with Firmino leaving the club at the end of his contract in the summer — 12 months after moving to Bayern Munich — only Salah remains in the club’s Champions League- and Premier League-winning front three, so it’s time to deliver Nunez. He is yet to start a game this season, with Klopp using him from the substitutes’ bench in each of Liverpool’s three matches so far and that suggests the Liverpool manager is still unsure how to get the best out of his most expensive signing.
Nunez’s first chance at Newcastle highlighted why Klopp harbors doubts. Running onto a through-ball, Nunez fluffed his control and within seconds, Harvey Barnes had almost put Newcastle 2-0 up at the other end.
But Nunez’s main positive is that, despite the mistakes and missed opportunities, he has the ability to brush aside the negatives and get going again. And when he equalized from almost the same chance he had messed up moments earlier, it was a clinical shot into the face of goal that only the most in-form striker would normally attempt.
Klopp’s challenge is to find a way to get Nunez to consistently take those chances, but it’s a challenge he will persevere with. The player’s speed, movement and finishing (when it’s off) is such that Liverpool know they have a forward who can eventually score 20 to 30 goals a season.
When Nunez scored the winner after being cut free by Salah’s pass, it was another superb finish beyond goalkeeper Nick Pope who mocked his reputation as a player who misses more goals than he does. Nunez’s problem is that he scores difficult chances and struggles with seemingly easy ones, but that flaw should be remedied with time on the training pitch.
That Nunez even managed to rescue and win the game for Liverpool is a testament to the determination within Klopp’s team.
They were unstoppable by Newcastle for long periods, but the home side somehow found a way to fend off Van Dijk after a reckless foul by Alexander Isak, to stay in the game. Goalkeeper Alisson Becker made a crucial save, one from Miguel Almiron preventing Newcastle from going 2-0 up at half-time, and the home side couldn’t find a way to score a second goal and kill the game off.
“We should have put the game to bed and that’s probably the thing we’re all kicking ourselves,” Newcastle manager Ed Howe said. “We had a lot of chances and goalmouth action. Their goalkeeper made the best save I’ve seen live from Almiron and it wasn’t for us.
“Moments and chances were there at the end but we lacked the killer instinct.”
But it was Nunez who showed that killer instinct and his contribution won the game for Liverpool. It was his biggest moment in a Liverpool shirt, a day when he really made a difference under pressure.
Nunez now has to make it the norm instead of a rare highlight.