With half an hour to play at Palace, it looked as if it was going to be another joyless trip to Selhurst for Liverpool. An early second half goal for Joe Ledley had left the visitors in trouble, and the problems were seemingly compounded when James Milner was sent off after a needless second yellow. However, this seemed to spur Liverpool on – they were by far the better side after being reduced to ten, and stole a victory in the dying seconds of the game with a dubious penalty won and converted by substitute Christian Benteke. It probably was a spot kick, but the element of doubt only served to make the victory sweeter – the anger of Pardew and the Palace fans is some measure of revenge for the infamous 3-3 draw. Liverpool are now just six points off the top four, and can move to within five of Arsenal with a victory in their game in hand: although it is a long shot, it means the season is suddenly far from over after all.
In many ways it was an odd match. The first twenty minutes or so were full of promise for Liverpool: they played some lovely flowing football and created multiple half-chances, only being denied clear-cut opportunities by their tendency towards over-intricacy in the attacking third. Admittedly the defence looked shaky; Palace looked capable of getting a goal or two, coming extremely close through Adebayor after a Lovren error, but it seemed likely that Liverpool’s front line would be able to counteract this. However, this pattern of play gradually stopped – by the half-hour mark the defences were very much on top, with Palace in the ascendency going forward. Only dominant performances from Sakho and, after a poor start, Lovren, prevented the home side from taking the lead before half time; they won the vast majority of their aerial battles, and doubled up well with the full-backs where necessary to nullify the threat of Zaha and Bolasie. This is the second week in a row where Lovren has been worthy of singling out for praise: it would perhaps be premature to say that he is now looking like a 20 million pound defender, but at the very least he no longer looks out of place in the team.
Nevertheless, Palace were able to take the lead very early in the second period. Predictably, it was from a corner: it looked as if the danger had been cleared, but a poor touch from Firmino fell favourably for Joe Ledley. Despite not having scored in over a year the midfielder inevitably came up with an excellent finish, driving the ball beyond Mignolet and into the corner. Having not threatened in any meaningful way since the opening exchanges, things were not looking promising for Liverpool; Jurgen Klopp apparently felt the same way, opting to bring off Jon Flanagan and replace him with Coutinho. This is about as far from like-for-like as it gets – it probably gave Van Gaal some sort of fit – and it certainly signalled the manager’s attacking mindset. Just seconds later, however, he was forced into another major re-think when James Milner picked up a second yellow card for a completely brainless challenge in an area of no particular danger. The formation after this was essentially unrecognisable: the visitors went to a back three, but with two of the defenders –Moreno and Lovren – essentially playing at wing back rather than centrally. Fans have become accustomed to Moreno’s marauding runs, but do not expect them from Lovren; he was a revelation down the right, with his committed performance epitomised by an inch-perfect challenge to rob Souare deep in Palace territory. Emre Can was also immense. He seemed to be absolutely everywhere after the sending off, simultaneously a sweeper and playmaker. He is becoming quite a player, and it is exciting to see how he develops. Even so, the hosts should surely have found a way of capitalising on Liverpool’s makeshift, open back line. Instead they panicked, allowing the visitors to come on to them: it was as if they had just got a man sent off. This fear was evident in the manner of Liverpool’s equaliser – goalkeeper Alex McCarthy failed to deal with a fairly routine back-pass, gifting the ball to Roberto Firmino. He made up for his earlier poor touch, controlling the ball beautifully before coolly slotting the ball beyond McCarthy and into the corner.
At this point Palace were in limbo: a point against Liverpool would have been a good result for them considering their woeful form of late, but with the extra man they felt that they could get more from the game. Instead of shutting up shop and seeing out the last few minutes they continued to come forward – Sako and Gayle were introduced to inject pace into the attack. Gaps were subsequently left at the back – despite a late defensive switch from Klopp that saw Toure replace Firmino, Liverpool showed no signs of wanting to settle for a point. The manager highlighted this after the game: although Palace largely gifted Liverpool the three points, the team still showed great spirit to push on. With just a minute of added time remaining, Henderson picked out Benteke with an inch-perfect pass: the Belgian showed a rare piece of good movement to get on the end of it, then went down under the challenge of Damien Delaney. It was a ridiculous tackle to make – Benteke was running harmlessly towards the by-line, and could simply have been shepherded out. Delaney tried to pull out of it but his knee caught Benteke’s foot: the striker went down, and after consulting with his assistant Andre Marriner pointed to the spot. Benteke himself stepped up to take the penalty: he showed incredible nerve to execute a perfect stutter penalty, making McCarthy commit then putting it the other side. He may not have had the best of times since joining for Liverpool, but the £32.5 million was all worth it to get one over on Palace like this.
The result means that Liverpool continue to make their league position look more favourable: they are the most in-form side over the last five games, and that turnaround in fortunes is reflected in the fact that we are now just six points off a Champions League space. Even though snatching a fourth place finish late on is highly implausible, it is no longer beyond the realms of possibility: this gives the team something to play for, and will prevent the season from simply petering out. With the Europa League clash to come against United on Thursday, there are bound to be plenty more exciting moments still to come in this campaign.
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