‘Grinding out results’ is an old saying used that is usually associated with teams that do well. Teams that win the league ‘grind out results’. Teams that finish high up the table ‘grind out results’. Teams that win trophies are lauded for ‘grinding out results’. Teams that do well usually lay to rest ghosts and break hoodoo’s as well. Yesterday Crystal Palace visited Anfield having not lost here since their first season back in the Premier League, in September 2013. It was clear that, to get a result, Jurgen Klopp’s men were going to have to grind out a result and break the Palace hoodoo to lay to the rest ghost of last week’s 3-3 draw with Waford.
Liverpool started with five changes from the midweek win over Hoffenheim in the Champions League. Simon Mignolet was a survivor of the cull, but Joe Gomez, Ragnar Klavan and Andy Robertson were beneficiaries. They replaced goal scoring hero Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dejan Lovren, who would make the subs bench, and Alberto Moreno. James Milner also came into the side for Emre Can, who made the bench. Milner was joined in midfield by Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum. Daniel Sturridge would make his first start of the season alongside Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino up front. The unfortunate victim of Sturridges arrival was Mohamed Salah who also dropped to the bench. Also in the dugout were Loris Karius, Jon Flanagan, Divock Origi and Dominic Solanke.
Palace were dealt a blow in the run up to the game, facing the prospect of not having Wilfried Zaha due to an injury picked up in last week’s 3-0 home defeat to Huddersfield Town. Wayne Hennessey would have a back three of Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Scott Dann and James Tomkins in front of him. Joel Ward and Patrick van Aanholt would start on either plank at wing back. Luka Milivojevic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek played behind Andros Townsend and Jason Puncheon in central midfield. Christian Benteke was aiming to repeat his exploits of last season and punish his former club by spearheading the visitors frontline. Frank de Boer’s bench would consist of Julian Speroni, Jason Eyenga-Lokilo, Sullay Kaikai, Martin Kelly, Yohan Cabaye, James McArthur and Jeffrey Schlupp.
Liverpool immediately took the onus and looked to smother Palace. Width was mostly provided by Robertson and Gomez, as Firmino and Mane looked to come narrow in a quest for goals. Focusing play mostly down the left, Andy Robertson initially found himself providing most of the threat and it was from his ball from the left wing that Liverpool should have taken the lead. Robertson played a one-two with Milner and whipped a beautiful ball into the box that just evaded Joel Ward, who was closing down the cross. Hennessey came to punch but completely missed the ball. Joel Matip had the simple task of nodding into an empty net, but Hennessey’s mistake had clearly take him by surprised and the ball headed him before dropping wide of the post. A glaring chance of which there wouldn’t be many as clear against such stubborn opposition.
Palace remained tight at the back and were looking to frustrate Liverpool. There have been many times over the past few years that teams have come to Anfield with the exact same gameplan and have managed to execute it as desired. On those occasions Liverpool have looked devoid of ideas and like they were attacking for the sake of it. But yesterday they attacked with purpose. It was clear that Klopp had set his side up with a gameplan of their own and his side were following it to the latter, showing a plethora of attacking options. Daniel Sturridge consistently dropped into the hole between the midfield and defensive lines, picking up the ball and threatening the opposition. Just after the half hour mark, Sturridge picked up the ball on the edge of the box before showing incredible skill to turn Ruben Loftus-Cheek and fire over. It was an optimistic effort but a warning to Palace that Sturridge should not be ignored.
Liverpool had another long range effort that required a save from Hennessey not long after. Roberto Firmino picked the ball up on the right side of the area from about 25 yards out and let rip. He aimed for the Welsh ‘keeper’s near post but he was equal to it. From the save, Palace broke forward. The ball eventually came to Jason Puncheon on the left edge of the Liverpool area. He tried the same trick against Simon Mignolet, but the Belgian beat the ball away. It was a mini flurry of entertainment that the game needed, but it was to be the last meaningful action of the half. Both managers will have gone in happy at half time. Jurgen Klopp will have been pleased to see his side showing a variety of options going forward and, although Palace were putting on a good defensive display, Liverpool were creating chances. As for his counterpart, Frank de Boer will have been happy with his teams refusal to break. They had come under sustained pressure from Liverpool in the first half and were steadfast. Both managers will have hoped for more of the same in the second half.
Early in the second half, Liverpool continued their onslaught and had early efforts saved by Hennessey from Henderson and Wijnaldum. But, in the 57th minute, Benteke would have Palace’s best chance of the game. A long ball was played into Liverpool’s left channel by Fosu-Mensah and met by Loftus-Cheek. The on-loan Chelsea midfielder was able to fend off the attentions of Klavan and dribble into the Liverpool area. He squared to Benteke, who was odds on to score from 6 yards out, but he blazed his shot into the Anfield Road end. Palace weren’t dead yet Benteke was aiming to carry on his impressing goalscoring record against his former club.
From there Liverpool forged ahead. In the 69th minute Mohamed Salah, on a substitute in place of Daniel Sturridge, passed to Sadio Mane on the edge of the box. He turned and left Ward for dead before firing a shot towards goal, which was blocked by Dann. The loose ball fell to Wijnaldum on the penalty spot but, with the ball on his unfavoured left foot, he took a touch onto his right which was fatal for his chances of a shot. He eventually shot but that too was blocked by Dann, before falling to Mane but he could only trickle and effort towards the welcoming arms of Wayne Hennessey. Palace will have been relieved to survive that attack. Three minutes later however, they wouldn’t be so fortunate.
Sadio Mane cut in from the right and played a one-two with Henderson. His first touch was poor though and the ball fell to Milivojevic. His touch was equally bad and Dom Solanke, who had come on for Wijnaldum, tried to control. Luckily for Liverpool, he hit the ball off the Palace midfielder and it fell into the path of Mane twelve yards. With Hennessey closing him down, he slid in and toe-poked the ball into the corner of the Kop net. Anfield broke into a cacophony of noise and the Liverpool players chased their Senegalese team-mate to congratulate him. He urged the players over towards a reluctant looking Jurgen Klopp in a significant show of unity with the manager. Maybe it was aimed at Philippe Coutinho after his apparent recent criticism with the manager. Maybe it was aimed at critics who have pilloried the team for defensive errors in the past couple of games. Only Mane will truly know who, if anyone at all, his gesture was aimed at. The important thing was Liverpool’s persistence had finally paid off and they were ahead.
Liverpool continued to press ahead, looking for a goal to kill the game off and seal the points. Dom Solanke would have an effort saved low by the Palace ‘keeper and Mo Salah’s curler was tipped wide. Andy Robertson also had a shot tipped over from 20 yards out to cap off an impressive debut. Palace came forward looking for an equaliser but their efforts were in vain. Liverpool put on their own show of defiance and saw the game out to claim their first league win of the season.
In a time when there is intense scrutiny on the club thanks to the actions of one player who isn’t playing, it was pleasing to see that matters on the field weren’t affected. This could have been a very tricky fixture for Liverpool given the oppositions good record at Anfield. But Klopp’s men never looked troubled. Even after the Benteke chance, when past Liverpool sides would have crumbled under the pressure and maybe let the opposition back into the game, Liverpool regained control of the game. They never gave the visitors a sniff and thoroughly deserved the winner. With impressive performances from Sadio Mane – again – and Andy Robertson, there are plenty of reasons for Liverpool supporters to go into next weeks’ home fixture with Arsenal confident of a win. But first, we entertain Hoffenheim looking to secure our place in the group stages of the Champions League.