The first half had all the makings of a quintessential Liverpool performance--dominance in possession, threatening around the periphery in attack without a finishing touch, terrible refereeing decisions, and, of course, a sloppily conceded goal to give the opposition the lead. The visitors were solid if a little sloppy for the first 45 minutes, spurning a few chances and gifting Crystal Palace the lead in the 15th minute after Martin Skrtel's failed clearance led to a well-taken volley by Frasier Campbell.
Only this time there was a different feeling, one of inevitability that Liverpool would do what was required to break their hosts down and get the result they needed. And, aided by a smart change at the half and their ability to kill a match off, that feeling proved true as Rodgers' side saw out an excellent 2-1 victory to seal their progress to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup.
In a fixture that's proven to be more that Rodgers and company could handle in the last calendar year, it's a significant-seeming achievement, especially given that they went down early and didn't recover despite dominating most of the first half. They were denied a clear penalty when Papa Souare took down Daniel Sturridge in the area, and Adam Lallana's left-footed strike was well-saved by Julian Speroni from close range after a neat interplay from him, Jordan Henderson, and Joe Allen gifted him space in front of goal. Lazar Markovic wasted another opportunity with a surging run from right to left but failed to hit the target.
They weren't perfect, however, and Skrtel's error first forced Mignolet into a save before Campbell put the hosts 1-0 ahead. Palace nearly made it two when Dwight Gayle sliced through Skrtel and Can and, with the benefit of a lucky bounce, found himself one-on-one with Mignolet. The Belgian was again equal to the task, however, and Liverpool cleared from what would prove to be the last real threat of the match from Gayle and Crystal Palace.
Rodgers' decision to bring on Mario Balotelli in favor of Markovic, who's been good but not great in recent weeks, seemed to energize Liverpool, and they were in front before fifteen minutes had gone in the second half. They again controlled possession but this time found the finishing touch, first when Henderson's inch-perfect, curling cross found Sturridge, who hit a first-time volley through the legs of Speroni and then after Lallana punched home the rebound from Balotelli's excellent free-kick.
Both goals were astounding in their own right; Sturridge's was even more beautiful in slow-motion, underlining the quality of the cross and the volley, one that demanded technical quality that not many can provide, and topped off with the most little brother moment imaginable as Alberto Moreno joined Sturridge in celebration. Moreno nearly one-upped himself after the winner, which was a goal almost entirely produced by Balotelli, who won the foul and then curled a low, hard strike around the wall at Speroni, who could only parry into the path of a perfectly timed run by Lallana.
Even more impressive from there was that Liverpool did the exact opposite of what one might expect--they saw it out comfortably. Gayle did manage a snap shot from the edge of the area, again saved well by Mignolet, but otherwise it was an exercise in controlling a match over the closing stages, with Joe Allen proving vital in the effort. The Welshman has found himself the target of plenty of criticism of late, but this was the type of environment for which he was built. In a match and midfield needing control to secure the result, he provided it in spades, and the ease with which he and his teammates saw out the final twenty minutes was heartening.
Once again this side and its manager improved as a match wore on, led by the suddenly imperious Mignolet, and once again they're deserving of praise for doing what is necessary to earn the needed result. Crystal Palace had the momentum and the history, but Liverpool found a way through, and the result was no less than they deserved. That they'll advance to the quarterfinals is excellent, but the sentimental benefits--if one is inclined to believe those exist--are just as important.
Four full days now before Besiktas visit Anfield in the Europa League, and four full days to hope this side to continue their improvements in what has become a season-saving stretch. Considering what they've produced in recent weeks, there's no reason to believe those improvements won't continue. If they do, Liverpool can turn February and March from a rescue effort into a true challenge for silverware and a top four finish.