Crystal Palace has always been one of “those” teams for Liverpool. Last season they won at Anfield, courtesy of a brace from Christian Benteke. And of course, that 3-3 draw at Selhurst Park four years ago will always remain as one of our most painful memories.
After the last international break of the season, this game was the beginning of the run-in for the Reds, the first obstacle of the final push to secure top-four placement; only a few days before the start of the huge double feature against Manchester City in the Champions League quarterfinals.
It was great to learn that Nathaniel Clyne was ready to make his long-awaited comeback after missing the entire season so far, especially in the light of Joe Gomez getting injured during the international break and being ruled out for a month. Adam Lallana had also returned to full fitness.
Emre Can is supposedly suffering from a back problem as Jurgen Klopp confirms the negotiations regarding a potential new deal for his compatriot are still open. Hopefully it won’t turn out to be the same ‘back problem’ that once troubled Philippe Coutinho.
This is the starting XI that Jurgen Klopp chose to take on the Eagles:
Roy Hodgson (I bet you love that guy) was bereft of the services of Jeffrey Schlupp and Joel Ward. Wilfried Zaha, James Tomkins and Alexander Sorloth were all marked with a question-mark. In the end, Zaha was the only one of the three players to make it.
The First Half
The game started as a fairly even contest. Both teams played cautiously. They were organized and responsible, and nobody rushed forward too much. Palace had a handball appeal after the ball appeared to have struck the arm of Andy Robertson on the edge of Liverpool’s box, but there was clearly no intention and nothing was given.
But after eight minutes, the home team came very close. They had the ball in midfield. Benteke dropped deeper to open the space for Zaha to cut into from the left wing. Yohan Cabaye played a good pass, Zaha escaped Trent-Alexander-Arnold’s attention and was through, rushing towards Loris Karius who was forced to make a very good save to keep the score level.
Two minutes later, Luka Milivojević sent a long pass forward for Benteke, but Trent defended well this time.
At this point it became obvious Hodgson’s attacking ideas were coming from Liverpool’s defeat at Old Trafford a few weeks ago. A long pass, the strong (Belgian) centre-forward drops deep and opens the space for Zaha to exploit against the inexperienced fullback.
A minute later, Liverpool themselves went with a long ball as Jordan Henderson found Sadio Mane inside the box, but all Mane could do was win a corner. It was excellently taken by Mohamed Salah, and Virgil van Dijk was the best in the air but his good header was, perhaps needlessly, flicked wide by Mane.
But after 12 minutes, the strategy employed by Palace worked. A long ball forward saw Benteke win the header in Liverpool’s half and send Zaha through, after the winger wriggled past Matip and Alexander-Arnold. Karius rushed out but Zaha was nearer to the ball and popped it over Karius. It went nowhere near the goal while Zaha and Karius bumped into each other. Both of them went down, but when the whistle sounded, the hand of referee Neil Swarbrick was pointing to the penalty spot.
Looking at it from several angles, Karius may have made a mistake to rush out, though staying on his line would have given Zaha a clear one-on-one situation. But Zaha’s kick of the ball over the Liverpool ‘keeper obviously served only one purpose: to show the referee he had got there first – he never even thought about putting it in the net. It was as an obvious moment of “looking for a penalty” as any.
Nevertheless, it was given, and Milivojević did not make the mistake he made against Manchester City. This time he took it superbly and Palace had taken the lead.
Three minutes later Roberto Firmino stole the ball from Martin Kelly and whacked it from 25 yards, but Wayne Hennessey in Palace’s goal was up for it. Then a nice combination going from Matip to James Milner saw Salah stopped by the joint efforts of Patrick van Aanholt and former Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho.
In the 23rd minute, Sadio Mane went down after slight contact from James McCarthy and got booked for it. Mane did try to get the most out of the situation by going down in a theatrical manner. However, there was contact – a trip from McCarthy, and there were more elements of a penalty in that than the Palace one that was given 12 minutes earlier.
But there’s no denying the fact that Liverpool were looking lame. There was no creativity whatsoever in their game, the passing was sloppy, and while Henderson anchored the midfield in his usual manner and Milner did his best to be up and about, Georginio Wijnaldum was nowhere to be seen. It took slightly over half an hour for the Dutchman’s presence on the pitch to get noticed at all.
In the 28th minute, Alexander-Arnold tried skipping the midfield and sent a good parallel for Salah. The Egypitian controlled it well, turned and took a shot, but Hennessey saved it easily.
Two minutes later, Mane was again at the centre of attention. Miler took a corner, van Dijk again headed goalwards, and Mane flicked it into the net. Just as he was about to celebrate an equalizer, Swarbrick saw the linesman’s flag rightfully raised and disallowed the goal.
There was a bit of confusion in Palace’s box when Hennessey stepped out and misjudged Alexander-Arnold’s cross in the 32 minute, but Kelly did well to clear in front of Firmino.
From that moment on, Liverpool were pressing Palace hard, circling their box and constantly recycling attacks, but that one killer pass for a clear-cut chance just couldn’t be found. All the Eagles were able to do was to hoof it directly from their box to Benteke in the middle of the pitch, but Matip and van Dijk were now fully alert. In fact, Benteke committed two needless fouls on van Dijk in quick succession, and after getting an earful for the first one, he got booked for the second in the 38th minute.
Just one minute later he did it again, but as the ball was still in Liverpool’s possession, Swarbrick diplomatically played advantage and said nothing afterwards.
The Reds turned the pressure up for the remainder of the half.
First, Salah had another shot from the edge of the box saved, and then a scramble in Palace’s box ended with Firmino’s shot being deflected out for a corner. The corner was taken by Salah, Mane was the quickest to react and sent a cunning low header on target, forcing Hennessey into a difficult save.
In the 45th minute, McCarthy was booked for a foul on Milner and then the home team did anything they could to break up play, successfully wasting the two minutes of stoppage time.
The Second Half
Understandably, Liverpool came out attacking in the second half, trying to catch the hosts off their guard. But good hold-up play from Benteke enabled Zaha to run forward, but the winger messed it up.
That moment aside, Wilfried Zaha was Crystal Palace’s best player throughout the game. Van Aanholt did well to support him from behind, often joining him on the overlap or underlap, as the occasion demanded; Benteke was also doing well to win as many duels as possible and engage him; Milivojević and Cabaye were sending long accurate passes; but his individual quality was very visible as the main reason why all these players were tasked with giving him support, playing into his strengths. Alexander-Arnold certainly had a difficult job to do.
Perhaps something for Liverpool to look into this summer? Just a thought.
Anyway, after having a torrid game, Mane showed his own pace, perseverance, skill and brilliance just four minutes after the break. He stole the ball off Sakho on the right and gave it to Salah. Salah quickly switched sides and had Milner combining nicely with Firmino on the left. Then Milner whacked a sharp low cross into the six-yard box and Mane cut in front of Sakho to cleverly flick it at full pace into the net. This one counted.
The confidence of the whole team was suddenly lifted and the game livened up. The change was very visible in Trent in the 52nd minute when he outsmarted McCarthy and van Aanholt to win a corner. For a couple of minutes, Palace were on the ropes.
But in the 58th minute, a pair of mistakes, first by Milner and then van Dijk, gave Benteke two great chances to restore the lead for the Eagles, but the big Belgian messed both of them up.
Right on the hour mark, a moment that could have changed the whole complexion of the game. Mane was clearly fouled by Andros Townsend on the edge of Liverpool’s box, but the referee didn’t give it. In order to force him to, Mane grabbed the ball with his hands, but Swarbrick instead gave the handball against him. There was a lot of commotion around the referee as Liverpool players claimed Mane had been fouled and Palace players urged that Mane should be sent off with a second booking. This time luck was on Liverpool’s side as Swarbrick decided to endulge no-one. The handball stood, giving Palace a free-kick in a good position, but instead of sending Mane off he just spoke a while with Henderson as the Liverpool captain.
The free-kick was taken by van Aanholt, and though the shot was strong and on target, it was easy work for Karius.
Sensing he needed to act immediately, Klopp pulled out Mane, and the barely visible Wijnaldum joined him on the path to the bench. Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlan came on.
An extremely sloppy couple of minutes from both teams followed, and then fate struck against Lallana. He had spent just four minutes on the pitch before staying down after putting in a challenge and clutching his hamstring. An incredible piece of bad luck for the player who already spent almost the entire season so far on the sidelines. It was also unlucky for the manager, who had no more midfielders left on the bench.
The situation was screaming for a formation change and Klopp obliged. Dejan Lovren came on, and the team was now shaped into a 3-5-2, with Salah moving next to Firmino as the second striker, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson pushing higher up the flanks as wing-backs, and Henderson, Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain sharing the centre-midfield responsibilities in front of the three centre-backs.
It may have been caused by an injury, but the change of system actually worked well. First of all, Benteke now had Lovren, as well as van Dijk and Matip, to compete against in the air. Alexander-Arnold had more support from Matip as the right centre-back in his fight against Zaha, while Robertson enjoyed more cover on the flank allowing him to attack more than before. Palace were trying to keep their back four narrow, but they were being stretched against their will far more often.
Hodgson quickly became aware he needed to change something as well, and after 73 minutes he sent in Ruben Loftus-Cheek instead of Cabaye.
A minute later, a great chance fell to Townsend. Zaha beat Matip down the left and squared the ball for Townsend just outside six yards, but van Dijk and Roberston combined their efforts well and dealt with the matter.
As the game approached its finale, Liverpool went out to win it.
Twelve minutes from time, Firmino, Milner, Salah and Oxlade-Chamberlain combined neatly to create havoc in Palace’s box, but Sakho cleared it with a last-ditch effort. Then a cross by Robertson got deflected by Aaron Wan-Bisaka in a way that the ball only just missed the goal. A minute later Salah found Firmino in the box but the Brazilian was stopped by the home team’s defence.
But six minutes from time, the inevitable happened.
Oxlade-Chamberlain broke down the right flank and sent in a low cross that missed everybody and found Robertson sprinting down the left. Robertson sent it back in, Firmino made a little dummy to confuse the defenders and left it off for Salah just outside the six yards. And Salah is not Townsend to allow himself to get stopped there. He tricked his marker and blasted it with his right foot past the helpless Hennessey.
Then Palace threw all caution into the wind and charged forward in numbers. Two minutes from time, Wan-Bissaka was replaced by Manchester United loanee Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
As the 90 were up, Hodgson realized the game was up and he sent Sakho to join Beneteke upfront. All they did at that point went through Milivojević, who was tasked with hoofing the ball constantly towards the two former Liverpool players. Benteke tried to get a late penalty at one point by getting himself between Lovren and Robertson and going down at the slightest of contacts, but there was no second booking for him either.
In the last attack of the game, Zaha got around Alexander-Arnold but his shot was feeble and easily saved. The final whistle went up and Liverpool have done a league double on Crystal Palace for the first time since ages ago.
With these three points, Liverpool had moved back into second place for a few hours, but at the time this report was being written, Manchester United had a two-goal lead against Swansea at Old Trafford with less then 20 minutes remaining. It meant Liverpool were likely to go back to third by the end of the day.
All that aside, the Palace game is done and dusted and the precious points are in the bag. The time has now come for the probably toughest 10 days of the season. Manchester City home, Everton away, Manchester City away.
We walk on.