For a while it felt as if Liverpool were about to let another Premier League title slip from their grasp at Selhurst Park. Jurgen 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 was 2-1 down but well on top. Chances came and went.
Maar Liverpool held on. With a full 18 days until their next league fixture, they gave it one last push and 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. In the meantime, 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.
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 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: seven minutes in, Van Dijk was able to run unimpeded to the near post to launch a thunderous header past Vicente Guaita. 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 build-up Édouard and Michael Olise had temporarily switched wings, and so as Andy Robertson advanced to the edge of the Palace penalty area, no one was really sure who was supposed to be stopping him. Tyrick Mitchell drifted too far into the centre, and so Oxlade-Chamberlain at the back post even had time to take a touch before slamming the ball low past Guaita. Weereens: multiple errors, one entirely foreseeable result.
Then again, Patrick Vieira has always believed that the best defence is having the ball. And unsurprisingly the more they saw of it, the more secure they looked. Their second-half resurgence had its origins in the period towards the end of the first, as Liverpool began to tire and Palace began to puncture a few holes in them.
Olise had a shot saved from a tight angle. Jean-Philippe Mateta broke the offside trap, Alisson just managing to scrape away his shot. Within a minute of the restart Conor Gallagher – quiet in the first half – had headed wide from four yards.
Uiteindelik, aan 55 minute, 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.
Nick Hornby once theorised that crowds were at their loudest when their team was losing but playing well. En, as Selhurst Park belatedly found its voice, having spent much of the first half in a low grumble, 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. Intussen, 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 doesn’t get tired, natuurlik, and Jota was still gamely running the channels. But too many Liverpool players did not 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 and tried to lob the ball over Alisson, who back-pedalled and desperately pawed the ball clear, earning himself a bang on the goalpost as he did so. That was the title race, right there. With four minutes left Alexander-Arnold looked up and pinged the ball 65 yards on to Jota’s toes. The flagging Jota could not quite bring the ball under control. But as Guaita closed in, he had an even better idea.
It was a terrible decision by the referee, Kevin Friend, who even with the benefit of his own eyes, the VAR and several replays failed to spot that Jota had veered right in order to engineer a collision with Guaita, who could do little about it. Steeds, 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 end. Before Liverpool’s second goal, possession was 30-70 in Liverpool’s favour. Na, dit was 51-49 in Palace’s. If only, Vieira will reflect, they had started playing a little earlier.