Coming back from an international break can be a nightmare. There is a reason there are two or three before Christmas and that is because they upset the momentum of teams too much. We are at a stage in the season where momentum is everything. A week-long break for players to go away with their countries can be destabilising, especially if one of those players doesn’t make it back fit. It’s always tricky to re-establish rhythm at the best of times, never mind with your next game being a bogey side at their place. Add into the mix an early kick off on a Saturday afternoon in London, and Liverpool’s trip to relegation threatened Crystal Palace had all the hallmarks of disaster waiting to happen.
With two Champions League quarter final games against Manchester City on the horizon you would forgive Jurgen Klopp for not playing his strongest XI here, but that was never going to be the case for the intense German. The only change to his team from the 5-0 win over Watford two weeks ago came in midfield, where Georginio Wijnaldum replaced the injured Emre Can. There was a welcome face on the bench however. Nathaniel Clyne returned to the fold after missing most of the season with a back injury. Just in time too, as Joe Gomez will miss the next couple of weeks with a knock picked up whilst needlessly playing for England.
Palace, as mentioned earlier, are in a relegation scrap and started this game just two points clear of the drop zone. Every point counts for Roy Hodgson and his boys now, and they will have been delighted to have Wilfried Zaha, possibly the best player outside of the top six, fit again. He and Andros Townsend flanked Christian Benteke up front, who was one of three former Reds to line up for the opposition today. Martin Kelly and Mamadou Sakho were centre half partners having donned Liver Birds in a past life, while Diego Cavalieri assumed a position he was used to while at Anfield – on the bench.
Despite the many injury problems affecting Palace at the minute they managed to ensure a fraught start to this game. Clearly accepting the fact that they are inferior technically to ourselves, they set about upsetting our rhythm and putting us under as much pressure as possible in midfield. It worked perfectly for them. Palace’s plan of attack seemed to be to force errors in the middle of the park and get ball to Zaha at any given opportunity. It seemed as if the tactic would pay off early on when Patrick Van Aanholt play a wonderful ball to Zaha from the left to right side. The Ivorian winger got across Trent Alexander-Arnold with too much ease and was clean through on Loris Karius’ goal. The German stopper came out and made himself big, deflecting Zaha’s shot over the bar with his chest. On thirteen minutes though, he wouldn’t be so fortunate.
Wayne Hennessey played long ball upfield which Benteke challenged with Jordan Henderson for. Benteke won the header and flicked it over Virgil Van Dijk into space. Zaha was again quicker than Alexander-Arnold to react and raced into Karius’ area. He flicked the ball over Karius but the neither player could stop their runs in time. Karius ploughed into Zaha and the referee paused before blowing for the penalty. Luka Milivojevic stepped up to take and, with six Premier League goals from penalties so far this season, there was only ever going to be one result. He sent Karius the wrong way to give his side the lead. On the balance of play Palace probably deserved their lead but it was a goal that could have been avoided.
As the half wore on Palace continued with their tactic of hitting Zaha whenever they could. They were also winning most of the battles in midfield, something that wasn’t helped by Liverpool not having a player in the middle who could open up the defence. This was becoming one of those games where we could have done with Philippe Coutinho, someone whose immediate intention upon receiving the ball is to run at the defence. Instead, we had Wijnaldum and James Milner. Both are fine players but there are certain games when you play both, and this was not one of them.
Nonetheless, Liverpool forged ahead looking for an equaliser. Ten minutes after the goal it looked like we would get the chance when Sadio Mane was brought down in the area by James McArthur. However, Neil Swarbrick decided Mane’s fall was too theatrical and booked him for diving instead. After seeing the replay, it was clear that Mane was hard done by, as there was contact, but that he didn’t help himself. Mane was involved again on the half hour mark. After practically clearing a goalbound header off the line from Virgil Van Dijk earlier, Mane had the ball in the back of the net from another corner. The assistant referee raised his flag for offside against the Senegalese though, a good decision having seen it back.
Mane was proving to be the best player on the pitch for Liverpool again, much like he was during the 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford a few weeks ago. He showed a different kind of bravery. The kind where he was unafraid to show for the ball even though he may have just lost it or something he had tried had not come off. He was unafraid of making himself available when we needed an option and someone to drive at the defence. He would have the last chance of the half when he headed Mo Salah’s right sided corner towards goal at the near post. Wayne Hennessey pulled off a very good save though to make sure his side went in ahead at half time.
It was a very strange half of football which Liverpool deserved to be behind despite having most of the ball. The clear-cut opportunities were few and far between for both sides, and Palace’s tactics had worked a treat for them. Jurgen Klopp will have been happy to have his side in at half time as something clearly needed to change. Roy Hodgson will have been delighted with his team’s display as they were obviously following his instructions to the letter.
The second half began at a frightful pace as Liverpool looked for the equaliser, while Palace attempted to pick us off on the break. One team’s intentions would be fulfilled though and that would be Liverpool’s. Four minutes after the restart Roberto Firmino held the ball up in the box with composure. He found the overlapping James Milner, who was able to hold the ball up himself before turning Aaron Wan-Bissaka inside out. Milner squared the ball across the box with pace and found Mane in the six-yard box, who had got across the ball-watching Mamadou Sakho (nothing new there then), to side foot the ball home. Surely this would now see Liverpool take greater control of the game and push for a winner.
We would attempt to do that but, by trying to force the issue, played straight into Palace’s hands. They were still getting the better of us in midfield and it almost paid dividends ten minutes after we equalised. James Milner’s pass on the edge of his own area was cut out by Yohan Cabaye and the ball eventually ended up at Benteke’s feet on inside the box. It looked harder for Benteke to miss but he managed to totally miscue his side footed volley into wide into the stand. Not a minute later Van Dijk lost the ball in midfield to Townsend. The former Newcastle and Spurs winger came forward and squared to Benteke on the edge of the area. This time he lost his balance before lifting the ball over the bar. Two guilt edged chances in two minutes that could haunt Benteke for a long time.
Klopp finally reacted to this lack of control in midfield by bringing on two fresh faces. Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came into the fray for Wijnaldum and Mane, the latter being lucky to be brought off instead of sent after not gaining a second booking for deliberate handball. Before the change even had time to take effect Lallana pulled up injured and had to be taken off. Dejan Lovren was brought on and we reverted to a back three. The change and tactical rejigging was a masterstroke from Klopp.
Liverpool all of a sudden surrendered the game, realising that Palace needed the points more than we did. We left it down to them to force the issue, safe in the knowledge that we now had three centre halves to break through and two wing backs, who proficient both defensively and offensively. It began to work as we pulled Palace apart on seventy-eight minutes. Mo Salah was clear in the box and ready to pull the trigger but couldn’t get the ball out of his feet, before Sakho finally managed to clear with a last ditch toepoke away from goal.
It looked like this one would end in a draw and we would just about get out of dodge with a point. That was until Mo Salah decided otherwise in the eighty fourth minute.
Palace were still forcing their play and they were the ones now making mistakes in midfield, which we were able to exploit. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain brought the ball forward down the right and was surrounded by three defenders. Instead of panicking and giving responsibility to Alexander-Arnold, he took on the situation himself and lifted a great ball to the back post. In a moment of supreme composure, Andrew Robertson, as opposed to volleying the ball towards goal, side footed it back across the box. Sakho lunged for it unsuccessfully and it fell to Salah. He took one touch on the edge of the six-yard box before volleying past the diving head of Sakho and hand Hennessey. The Liverpool end went wild in celebration and appreciation for Salah’s twenty ninth league goal of the season. He had been quiet all day but had done what all world class players do – won the game.
With the lead now intact Liverpool had the perfect tactical set up to see out the game. We reverted to a 5-4-1, with three centre halves and the wing backs dropping deeper. Oxlade Chamberlain and Firmino went onto the wings and provided extra cover for the wing backs. Palace were unable to break through and we were never troubled. The opposition couldn’t break us down and Liverpool hung on for a vital win.
Despite what many might say this was our toughest game between now and the end of the season. We will raise out game regardless of the situation at Stamford Bridge and over the two legs in the Champions League against City. We have a wretched record at Selhurst Park and a win in any circumstances here was welcome. To grind a result out after going behind is extremely impressive. It’s what champions are made of.