Crystal Palace 1 Liverpool 3
For a while, it felt as if Liverpool were about to let another Premier League title slip from their grasp at Selhurst Park. Jürgen Klopp’s exhausted side looked as if they were playing on fumes. Nine of them had played a gruelling League Cup semi-final against Arsenal on Thursday night.
Two nights’ sleep, some ice packs, some light training, and then back on the bus. Crystal Palace were 2-1 down but well on top. Chances came and went.
But Liverpool held on. They even managed to burgle a third goal, a richly undeserved penalty converted by Fabinho to give them a little breathing space. Now they can rest up a little, recharge their batteries, welcome back Mo Salah and Sadio Mané from international duty. It is a full 18 days until their next league fixture. This was their one last push, and it means we still, just about, have a title race.
Liverpool were scrappy but decisive when it mattered. Virgil van Dijk and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got the two crucial first-half goals. Jordan Henderson was magnificent in midfield. Curtis Jones never stopped. Trent Alexander-Arnold was beginning to puff even before the end of the first half, but in the dying minutes somehow still managed to produce the pass of the match, a devastating 60-yard diagonal ball from which Diogo Jota won the late penalty.
As for Palace, it was a familiar story: a nice performance, hampered by their irritating habit of finding themselves 2-0 down after half an hour.
Again they were forced to chase the game after those two early goals. Many of their problems appear to be structural: an absence of clear authority at the back (the superb Joachim Andersen aside) and that well-known weakness at set pieces. Palace are not a big team, and so when that slight physical disadvantage is compounded by individual errors and positional indiscipline, they possess not so much a defence as a welcome mat.
Take Liverpool’s first goal for starters: seven minutes in, van Dijk was able to run from the D to the near post unimpeded to launch a thunderous header that Vicente Guaita could do nothing about. You could point the finger at Odsonne Édouard, supposedly marking the near post but oblivious to Van Dijk’s movement, or perhaps someone further back in the chain. But it is becoming too frequent a problem to be accidental.
The second goal was different. In the buildup Édouard and Michael Olise had temporarily switched wings, and so as Andy Robertson advanced from halfway to the edge of the Palace penalty area, no one really seemed sure who was supposed to be stopping him. The left-back Tyrick Mitchell drifted too far into the centre, Oxlade-Chamberlain was unmarked at the back post and even had time to take a touch before slamming the ball low past Guaita.
Again: multiple errors, one entirely foreseeable result.
Then again Patrick Vieira has always believed that the best defence is having the ball. And it was no surprise that the more they saw of it, the more secure they looked. Their second-half resurgence had its origins towards the end of the first, as Liverpool began to tire and Palace began to puncture a few holes in their back line. Olise had a shot saved from a tight angle, Jean-Philippe Mateta breaking the offside trap, Alisson just managing to get fingers to his shot. Within a minute of the restart Conor Gallagher – quiet in the first half – had headed wide from four yards.
Finally, on 55 minutes, an opening. Joël Matip headed poorly out of defence, Jeffrey Schlupp carved open a ragged Liverpool with one pass and Édouard was able to tap into an empty net after Mateta’s unselfish lay-off.
It was Nick Hornby who once theorised that crowds were at their loudest when their team was losing but playing well. And as Selhurst Park belatedly found its voice, having spent much of the first half grumbling about the referee, so it proved here.
Vieira decided to go for the throat. Eberechi Eze came on, followed later by Jordan Ayew and Christian Benteke as Palace essentially went to an attacking 4-2-4. Meanwhile Liverpool were desperately trying to take some oxygen out of the game. Klopp had introduced Takumi Minamino on the hour, but in reality there was little else he could do. Henderson does not get tired, of course, and Jota was still gamely running the channels. But too many Liverpool players didn’t really want the ball, could no longer sprint after it, were starting to play for time.
With eight minutes remaining Olise got a run on Robertson from Anderson’s long ball and tried to lob the ball over Alisson, who chased furiously after it. This was it: the title race right there. Alisson desperately pawed the ball clear, earning himself a bang on the goalpost as he did so, and that close shave finally seemed to convince Liverpool to knuckle down.
With four minutes left Alexander-Arnold looked up and pinged the ball 65 yards on to Jota’s toes. The flagging Jota couldn’t quite bring the ball under control. But as Guaita closed in, he had an even better idea.
It was a terrible decision by referee Kevin Friend, who even with the benefit of his own eyes, the VAR and several replays failed to spot that Jota had veered to the right in order to engineer a collision with Guaita, who could do little about it. Still, Liverpool were content to take whatever they could get. And for all Palace’s chagrin at the end, this was a game lost at its start, not at its beginning. Before Liverpool’s second goal, possession was 30-70 in Liverpool’s favour. After, it was 51-49. If only, Vieira will reflect, they had started playing a little earlier. – Guardian