For a while, it felt like Liverpool were about to let another Premier League title slip away at Selhurst Park. Jürgen Klopp’s exhausted team seemed to be playing with smoke. Nine of them had played in a grueling League Cup semi-final against Arsenal on Thursday night.
Two nights of sleep, some ice packs, some light training, and then back to the bus. Crystal Palace was down 2-1 but well up. The occasions came and went.
But Liverpool held on. They even managed to steal a third goal, a very undeserved penalty converted by Fabinho to give them a little breathing room. Now they can get some rest, recharge their batteries, welcome Mo Salah and Sadio Mané from international service. That’s a full 18 days until their next league game. This was his last push, and it means we still have a title run.
Liverpool were rudimentary but decisive when it mattered. Virgil van Dijk and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored the crucial two goals of the first half. Jordan Henderson was magnificent in midfield. Curtis Jones never stopped. Trent Alexander-Arnold was starting to huff even before the end of the first half, but in the closing minutes he somehow managed to produce the pass of the game, a devastating 60-yard diagonal ball from which Diogo Jota won the late penalty.
As for Palace, it was a familiar story: a strong performance, hampered by their irritating habit of finding themselves 2-0 down after half an hour.
They were again forced to chase play after those first two goals. Many of their problems seem to be structural: the absence of a clear authority at the back (aside from the superb Joachim Andersen) and that well-known weakness from set pieces. Palace are not a great team, so when that slight physical handicap is compounded by individual errors and positional indiscipline, they don’t have so much a defense as a welcome mat.
Let’s take Liverpool’s first goal for starters: seven minutes into the game, van Dijk was able to run from the D to the near post unhindered to launch a thunderous header that Vicente Guaita was powerless to do anything about. He could point the finger at Odsonne Édouard, supposedly scoring the near post but oblivious to Van Dijk’s move, or perhaps at someone further back in the chain. But it is becoming too common a problem to be accidental.
The second goal was different. In the build-up, Édouard and Michael Olise had temporarily switched wings, so when Andy Robertson charged forward from the edge of the Palace penalty area, no one seemed sure who was supposed to stop him. Left back Tyrick Mitchell slid too far into the middle, Oxlade-Chamberlain was wide open at the back post and even had time to touch before lobbing the ball under Guaita.
Again: multiple errors, a totally predictable result.
On the other hand, Patrick Vieira has always believed that the best defense is having the ball. And it was no surprise that the more they saw him, the more confident they seemed. Their second-half resurgence had its origin towards the end of the first, when Liverpool began to tire and Palace began to drill some holes in their backline. Olise had a shot saved from a tight angle, Jean-Philippe Mateta broke the offside trap, Alisson only managed to get his fingers on his shot. A minute after the restart, Conor Gallagher, calm in the first half, headed wide from four yards out.
Finally, in the 55th minute, an opening. Joël Matip headed poorly out of defence, Jeffrey Schlupp opened a ragged Liverpool with a pass and Édouard was able to take advantage of an empty net after Mateta’s selfless dismissal.
It was Nick Hornby who once theorized that crowds were loudest when his team was losing but playing well. And as Selhurst Park belatedly found its voice, having spent much of the first half complaining about the referee, it proved so here.
Vieira decided to go for the throat. Eberechi Eze entered, followed later by Jordan Ayew and Christian Benteke, as Palace basically went into a 4-2-4 attack. Meanwhile, Liverpool were desperately trying to suck some oxygen out of the game. Klopp had introduced Takumi Minamino at the time, but in reality there was little else he could do. Henderson never tires, of course, and Jota bravely continued to run the canals. But too many Liverpool players didn’t really want the ball, they couldn’t run after it anymore, they were starting to play for time.
With eight minutes remaining, Olise got a run on Robertson off a long pass from Anderson and tried to pass the ball over Alisson, who furiously chased after him. This was it: the title race right there. Alisson desperately cleared the ball with his foot, earning himself a hit on the goalpost in doing so, and that rush finally seemed to convince Liverpool to give up.
With four minutes remaining, Alexander-Arnold looked up and lobbed the ball 65 yards to Jota’s toes. Jota, who was on the decline, could not control the ball. But when Guaita got closer, 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 repetitions did not detect that Jota had deviated to the right to cause a clash with Guaita, who could do little about it. . Still, Liverpool were content to take what they could get. And much to Palace’s chagrin at the end, this was a game lost early on, not early on. Before Liverpool’s second goal, possession was 30-70 in favor of Liverpool. Afterwards, it was 51-49. I wish, Vieira will reflect, they had started playing a little earlier.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism