Heading into last season, the narrative of most previews pitted two blokes with ponytails against each other. After Liverpool and Manchester City were separated by just a point in 2022, which titanic signing would tilt the title his side’s way: Erling Haaland or Darwin Nunez?
The charismatic young strikers were both bought for huge fees and immediately cast as the Premier League’s protagonists, with the pair dominating Sky Sports’ billboard adverts, newspaper pullouts and pub debates.
As we now know, that battle ended Haaland 52, Nunez 15… City trophies three, Liverpool zero. The Uruguayan ‘agent of chaos’ — as he was described by Portuguese experts after his move from Benfica — never got going, and as such, neither did his team.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of Nunez’s first season on these shores was the reckless red card he received on his home debut against Crystal Palace a year ago. A three-match ban, plus a frustrating year pockmarked by injuries and poor finishing, followed.
But now Nunez has a new memorable moment at Liverpool. After coming off the bench for a 15-minute cameo with his team a goal down and a player down at Newcastle, the striker scored two smash-and-grab goals to secure a famous three points.
Darwin Nunez (pictured) was the hero as he scored twice during Liverpool’s 2-1 defeat to Newcastle on Saturday
The Uruguayan (pictured) came off the bench to help the Reds pull off an incredible comeback against Eddie Howe’s side, firing two excellent finishes past Nick Pope in goal
His first came in the 81st minute of the game but he was back again not long after, scoring an almost identical goal to give Jurgen Klopp’s side the win in the 93rd minute
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He celebrated by putting his fingers to his ears — shutting out the critics — and lapped up chants of ‘Darwin, Darwin, Darwin’ from the travelling fans at St James’ Park. One jubilant away supporter told Mail Sport: ‘This is the most buzzing I’ve felt since we beat Barcelona in the Champions League.’
The two goals were reason enough but the fact both were superb finishes added to the feeling that this could be the moment that gives his Liverpool career lift-off. Assistant manager Pep Lijnders has been key in the development of Nunez, with the Dutchman — who speaks multiple languages — acting as a translator at times and sitting the striker down in pre-season to instruct him to focus on remaining calm.
Nunez is said to have been bothered by the Haaland comparisons in his first season and often found himself rushing chances. Lijnders encouraged Nunez not to be too hard on himself and realise that, at 24, he must be patient in his development.
Those close to him say he has harnessed the disappointment of last year in a positive way.
The main issue in his first season was that poor finishing record — expected goals (xG) dictated he should have scored five more in the league given the chances he had — but on top of that was the language barrier and not enough defensive duties off the ball.
Nunez was often compared with Erling Haaland last season. The Norwegian had an electric campaign while he struggled at Anfield
Nunez acted on this over the summer and has taken up extra English lessons, while Andy Robertson jokingly set team-mates a challenge to ‘test Darwin’s English’ during a pre-season trip to Singapore.
Though he is still wedded to some home comforts — he waltzed around the plush Ritz Carlton hotel with the South American herbal drink mate — Nunez’s English is clearly improving.
Goalkeeper Alisson offered to step in as translator during post-match TV interviews on Sunday. ‘Thank you for all the support,’ Nunez said in perfect English, before bursting into laughter.
Just a short time observing him makes it clear he is a bubbly personality and well-liked in the dressing room — even if he is sometimes the butt of jokes from Liverpool’s class clowns.
During one humid day in Singapore, Klopp was asked whether Nunez’s ruthlessness in front of goal during pre-season had earned him a chance in the first team. Klopp replied that the ‘golden ticket’ into his starting XI was ‘counter-pressing’ and all-round defensive dirty work.
Liverpool have quietly built up a 14-match unbeaten league run and Nunez has started just three of those games, with Cody Gakpo or Diogo Jota often preferred due to their all-round play. Dutch forward Gakpo loves the ‘false nine’ role as it allows him to dictate play from deep.
But Nunez clearly knows what he needs to do to earn his ‘golden ticket’ to the first team, and those at Liverpool say he has been showing extra effort in training to develop his off-the-ball game.
Klopp (pictured) admitted Nunez was not happy for not starting games after his impact at Newcastle this weekend
‘Darwin is not happy for not starting, that’s how it is,’ said Klopp after the match on Sunday, adding that his forward was ‘fired up’ to be on the bench.
‘If he wouldn’t have been that angry and had started the game, then he wouldn’t have scored two in the last few minutes!
‘We have to have different options. We need to create a new way to play football and Darwin can be a super part of that. His key strengths are exceptional, but we need to find stability as well. For him, everything will be fine.’
And it will be fine for the £85million man who is adored by the Kop but became a figure of fun for rival fans after his slow start to life in England.
After a season seemingly playing the joker, Nunez has shown he can now be the ace in Klopp’s pack.
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