Pre-season tours can be difficult on the legs of football players. After long hours travelling to some far, flung destination, all the ordinary person would want to do is lie back and wait for the jet lag to take hold. But for footballers there is no time to rest. After arriving in Hong Kong on Monday, Liverpool trained yesterday and then played Crystal Palace this morning in a muggy stadium on a pitch devoured by West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City in the game on before theirs. Wearing the new third kit – an amalgamated shade of orange, yellow and red – Jurgen Klopp’s men continued their mission to regain full match fitness ahead of the new season.
As is usually the case with pre-season fixtures, the manager decided to field a team mixed with hopeful academy products looking for an opportunity to shine and experienced first teams players aiming to get ready for the new campaign. But despite Klopp’s claims that he was looking at new formations in training, Liverpool have, thus far, stuck with the 4-3-3 which served them so well last season – today wasn’t any different. Simon Mignolet started in goal behind a back four of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Alberto Moreno. Jordan Henderson protected the defence, whilst playing in front of him was the duo of Adam Lallana and Ben Woodburn. This is the second time Woodburn has played central midfield so one can only assume that this is a tactic Klopp is keeping in mind for the young Welshman. Mohamed Salah made his second appearance up front, leading on from his goalscoring debut against Wigan Atheltic, and was joined by Daniel Sturridge and Roberto Firmino.
Palace started their first game under new boss Ronald de Boer with a change of formation. Playing a 3-4-3, Wayne Henessey was looking for protection from Joel Ward, Damien Delaney and Scott Dann. A midfield four of Andros Townsend, Jason Puncheon, Luka Milivojevic and Jeffrey Schlupp backed up an attacking trio of Wilfried Zaha, Christian Benteke and Keshi Anderson. There was no sign of new signing Jairo Riedewald on the bench nor in the starting line-up.
Liverpool started the game as they do most games – looking to dominate the ball and keep possession. They looked the brighter team and wanted to probe and pull Palace around. Palace looked reasonably comfortable in the opening stages and tried to hit Liverpool on the break, but a combination of a poor first touch from each Palace forward and a bobbly pitch, chewed up and spat out in the game that had ended not an hour before, was scuppering their grand plan.
On 11 minutes the game had its first chance and it inevitably fell to the men in orange. Woodburn had the ball on Liverpool’s right hand side. He played a lovely one-two with Alexander-Arnold which left Wilfried Zaha chasing shadows. The young right back took one touch out of his feet before zipping it low into the area. Daniel Sturridge met it from 6 yards out with his left boot but he slightly scuffed his shot before it deflected off Damien Delaney and out for a corner. Palace had now been warned about how incisive Liverpool could be and not to underestimate Alexander-Arnold. The right back had put in an impressive display against Tranmere Rovers last Wednesday and was looking to do the same today.
Not long afterwards, Daniel Sturridge got on the end of an accurate ball into the area by Jordan Henderson. Sturridge exquisitely back heeled it into the path of the onrushing Adam Lallana who scooped the bouncing ball over the bar. Sturridge has received praise from his manager this week for the condition he has arrived to this pre-season in after a summer break. His manager should also praise the England centre forward for the improvement in his all-round game since Jurgen Klopp arrived in October 2016. Sturridge is no longer the poacher he was when Brendan Rodgers paid £12 million for him from Chelsea four and a half years ago. He is now better at holding the ball up and bringing others into play, and his defensive work has come on leaps and bounds.
The stadium arose in the 21st minute in tribute to the departing Lucas Leiva. An emotional open letter penned by the Brazilian upon the confirmation of his transfer to Lazio has touched many fans, including those in Hong Kong who decided to stage a minutes applause for him in the minute in the game which corresponded with his Liverpool shirt number. It’s common knowledge that Lucas has been a vital cog in the dressing room dynamic at Melwood and the effect of his departure on his team-mates will only be determined through time.
But it was a recent arrival that was starting to catch the eye in this game and Mo Salah was showing exactly why Jurgen Klopp had chased him hard over the summer. First, the Egyptian wide man was played in down the right byline by Matip. He knocked the ball past Delaney before showing a frightening turn of pace to beat the Irishman who had previously looked favourite. His cross was eventually nodded behind by Scott Dann, but the glimpse of what may be to come from Salah was enough to make this Liverpool fan sit up and take notice. Not long after, Salah again received the ball down the right from Matip. He came inside and skipped past three Palace defenders like they weren’t even there, before curling a shot over Henesseys bar. The prospect of Salah and Sadio Mane on either wing this season is beginning to look a mouth-watering one.
It took 26 minutes for Palace to have their first real chance on goal. Keshi Anderson and Andros Townsend linked up on the Palace right. Townsend came inside and slid the ball between Moreno and Matip into a pocket of space in the Liverpool area. Anderson gathered it, took one touch and fired towards Simon Mignolets goal, but the Belgian stopper had got his angles right and the shot bounced off him for a corner. de Boer’s men were reminding the reds that they weren’t here to make up the numbers.
That would happen to be a rare chance on goal for the South London side though. They tried to break away with pace but never really troubled the centre back pairing of Matip and Gomez, the latter playing an atypical game in his natural position and doing fairly well. Zaha seemed to be the outlet. He started up against Alexander-Arnold but once realised he was getting no change out of him, he switched his attentions to Alberto Moreno. The Spanish left back, much maligned last season, also held his own against the tricky Ivorian winger. Jurgen Klopp said in his post-match interview how happy he was that both full backs managed to contain the Palace wingers, no matter who they came up against. It was looking like it was going to be a drab night for Zaha and his team mates.
As the half drew to a close, there was one last chance for Sturridge to test Henessey. After a Salah free kick was cleared, Liverpool regained possession on the left. The ball eventually came to Sturridge. He took one touch before firing it towards Henesseys bottom corner. Slowly the Welsh ‘keeper went down but he did palm it around the post to deny Liverpool an opener. At half time, Jurgen Klopp would by far have been the happier manager. Liverpool were playing with a higher intensity and working harder all over the pitch. Crystal Palace looked like they were trying to invite Liverpool onto them, but didn’t have the legs at this stage of pre-season to counter attack quickly enough to catch us out.
At the beginning of the second half, Liverpool made 10 substitutions gradually over a period of 5 minutes. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Alberto Moreno, Jordan Henderson, Ben Woodburn, Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino, Daniel Sturridge and Mo Salah’s collective day was over. Jon Flanagan, Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan, James Milner, Marko Grujic, Giorginho Wijnaldum, Philippe Coutinho, Ryan Kent, Divock Origi and Dominic Solanke entered the fray. The game warmed up slowly and, on 53 minutes, Liverpool had their first chance of the half.
Marko Grujic played a raking cross-field ball to Philippe Coutinho. After a lovely touch from the little Brazilian, he played a one-two with Milner. The neat inter-play took Joel Ward out of the game. Coutinho then dribbled past Dann before curling a shot towards the top corner of Wayne Henesseys goal, which whistled just over. Coutinho had announced his arrival and let the Crystal Palace backline know just what the rest of their night was going to be like. de Boers men continued to ignore this warning though and allowed Liverpool to have the ball in their half. On 61 minutes they were punished.
Coutinho picked the ball up 40 yards from goal. He fizzed it into the feet of Divock Origi, hoping to play a one-two with the forward. Instead Origi flicked the ball through his legs into space. No Palace defender reacted as Dom Solanke picked up loose possession just outside the ‘D’. Solanke took one touch out of his feet before rifling a low shot towards goal. Henessey dived but the ball had hit the bottom corner of his net before he landed on the floor again. It was fantastic finish from a young player who looks very promising so far. Solanke has shown in his short playing time this pre-season that his hold up play, first touch and movement are excellent for his age. The only drawback so far for the lad who won the U-20 World Cup player of the tournament has been his finishing. But this goal completely contradicts that claim. It was the finish of a Premier League striker.
When play resumed Palace failed to react. They continued to play abjectly while Liverpool continued to press forward. Moments after the goal, Coutinho again pulled into the left channel. He slid the ball to Grujic 20 yards out and the Serb released a shot but it was straight down Henessey’s throat. Ryan Kent then crossed from the right. Dann cleared but only as far as Wijnaldum. As three defenders rushed to close him down, Wijnaldum sent them all the shop before getting a shot off which, again, was right at the ‘keeper. Liverpool’s young players have impressed so far in the 3 games we have played in the past week, no one more so than Ryan Kent. The young Scouser has shown how direct and tricky he is. It is well known that defenders don’t like being ran at, so they must all hate Ryan Kent. With Sheyi Ojo out on loan and uncertainty over the future of Lazar Markovic, surely there is a chance for Kent to play in one or two first team games this season. He is certainly doing his chances no harm.
If Liverpool were about to take their foot off the pedal then they needed to think again – Palace were about to stage a mini-revival. On 73 minutes Patrick van Aanholt managed to get in behind Jon Flanagan. From the left, he played a deep ball to the back post. Wan Bissaka was arriving but couldn’t get a clean connection on his volley, which was eventually headed away by Dejan Lovren. It seemed like a warning to Liverpool but their opponents couldn’t build on their first half-chance of the second period. On 79 minutes, the game was put to bed.
Coutinho took possession in the middle of the pitch before playing in James Milner down the left. Faced up by Delaney, Milner took two step over’s before cutting back inside onto his stronger right foot. Delaney had not guarded against this and was made to pay when Milner squared it to the incoming Coutinho, who had continued his run. With one touch, Coutinho took substitute Nya Kirby out of the game. He poked the ball towards goal but it ricocheted off Scott Dann into the path of the unmarked Divock Origi. From 6 yards out it was unlikely that the Belgian striker would miss and he didn’t disappoint, slotting into the bottom corner. Origi had shown all day what he brought to the team, linking up well with the midfield and doing his usual pulling of defenders around the pitch. After the game he stated his intention to play more of a role in the starting XI this season. His performance today, along with his goal, will have gone a long way to supporting his claim.
The game slowly died after Origi’s winner. Palace lost all intensity and purpose, and Liverpool were now managing the opposition well. At first they looked like they didn’t know whether to stick or twist, with Lovren, Klavan and Grujic staging their own open training session. But Liverpool soon took the onus again and managed to squeeze in one last threat to the opposition goal when Ryan Kent was released by Jon Flanagan. Flanny Alves played in Kent down the right. He took on three Palace defenders before shooting low towards Henessey’s near post. The Welsh number one again went down in instalments but got there nonetheless to deny the young winger. From the resulting corner, James Milner played a one-two with Flanagan before finding himself in acres of space inside the area. He cut it back to Grujic, who was 7 yards out, but his side footed shot was blocked well by Delaney.
The referee could have added 9 minutes on for stoppages due to substitutions but decided to have mercy on all involved, including all of us watching thousands of miles away at 3pm. Liverpool had deservedly won and put in a pleasing performance to boot. In a sweaty post-match interview in the humid tunnel of the Hong Kong International Stadium, Jurgen Klopp spoke of his delight at the performance. He was particularly pleased with his opinion that Liverpool were actually ahead of schedule in pre-season and how the new players had settled into the team. And who can blame him? Solanke scored and Salah terrorised the Crystal Palace defence in his 45 minutes. The manager’s happiness is justified to say the least.
Liverpool now face Leicester City in the final of the Premier League Asia Trophy on Saturday. Leicester beat West Brom on penalties in the game which practically ruined the pitch for Liverpool and Crystal Palace. But they will be pleased that Riyad Mahrez was able to put his transfer speculation behind him to score the equalising goal for the Foxes. Leicester will be a completely different proposition for Liverpool at the weekend, but, if Klopp’s boys play like they did today, then the result will surely be the same.