Liverpool 1 Coutinho 24’
Crystal Palace 2 Benteke 42’, 74’
It was said, only partly in jest, that Liverpool had the toughest end-of-season schedule of the various contenders, mainly because their list of opponents in April and May featured so much of the proverbial low-hanging fruit from the Premier League table. All too often, however, Liverpool have come away with nothing but fruit on their faces against such sides, and so it was again today, as Christian Benteke secured all three points for Crystal Palace against his former club.
Already missing the mercurial Sadio Mané, Adam Lallana, and Jordan Henderson, Liverpool learned before the match that Daniel Sturridge would also be definitively precluded from taking part in today’s proceedings - not that he was likely to play a major role in any event. And so, Jürgen Klopp trotted out the same side that had showed no small amount of resolve against West Bromwich Albion last week, knowing that Liverpool would likely have to grind out a result again.
From the start, there was hope that we might see an actual football match today, instead of the usual one-way traffic that tends to stymie the Liverpool forwards. Palace, at least initially, showed they were not content to sit back from the opening whistle, and showed some measure of enterprise and fluidity going forward, primarily through the efforts of Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha.
This in turn allowed Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner opportunities to push forward behind their counterparts, the final ball from Liverpool’s flanks was frustratingly poor today, particularly from Clyne. There was an early scare for Palace when they appeared to have overcommitted numbers forward, allowing Firmino to sneak into acres of space, but the Brazilian’s cross from the right eluded all of his teammates. Palace would take measures not to be caught out so easily again.
A sequence of more-hopeful-than-menacing chipped and lobbed balls into the Palace box, mostly in search of Divock Origi, was interrupted when Coutinho, almost back to his most slippery form, forced a desperate foul from James Tomkins. It was not in the most promising of positions for a shot, but Coutinho stepped up to take the free kick himself, and delivered in brilliant fashion with a seeing-eye missile that hurdled the wall before nestling in the back of the net.
Could Liverpool build on the advantage and put the tie to bed before Palace regrouped? They certainly tried. Minutes after going ahead, Milner lashed a tantalizing cross from the left that just barely eluded Origi’s forehead. Liverpool then tried a more central approach, but Coutinho and Firmino both found themselves running into a wall of yellow shirts just outside the Palace box. Origi began to cut an increasingly isolated figure, and did himself no favors with his decision-making on the few occasions when he found himself with the ball.
By the half-hour mark, Palace had put Coutinho’s goal behind them. The visitors were selective in their application of pressure, forcing Liverpool to be more tentative than they perhaps needed to be. While both Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum found chances to motor upfield, the hosts were guilty of being less than judicious in their use of possession when in the final third, and allowed Palace to increasingly worry Matip and Lovren.
Unsurprisingly, it was the briefest lapse in concentration that allowed Sam Allardyce’s men to equalize. A hopeful punt from the right flank coupled with poor positioning from Lovren found Yohan Cabaye free on the edge of the box, with the other Liverpool defenders woefully caught out. Cabaye’s cross found Benteke at the far post, and it was the simplest of finishes to put the teams level. As Klopp said afterwards, “I know what happened but I don’t know how it happened.” Truer words, etc.
That was how things stood when the two sides went indoors at the half, and with no changes made by either manager, it was a toss up as to whether Liverpool or Palace would seize the momentum in the second half. Coutinho tried his best to take control of the match, and for a few brief minutes, it seemed like he might just do that for Liverpool. First, he had a pop at goal right on the fifty minute mark, but the ball came off his left foot so no prized for guessing where it ended up.
Moments later, the Brazilian almost produced another magical goal when he sauntered into the box, the ball glued to his feet, and surrounded by Palace defenders. It seemed like an eternity before Coutinho was able to pull the trigger, and by then, Tomkins had thrown himself in front of the shot as a last ditch rescue attempt. The trio of opportunities was completed when Clyne found Coutinho with one of the few successful crosses he mustered on the day, but the downward header had the sting taken out of it by a deflection.
Worryingly for Liverpool supporters, this looked like the best the side could muster against Palace. Outside of Coutinho and Firmino, the side looked willing to chase but bereft of good ideas. Lucas, of all people, almost fashioned a clear chance for Firmino with an incisive through ball but the keeper was out quickly to collect, and snuffed out the danger. Did Liverpool have any cards left to play?
They did, and unfortunately, the card was a Joker. With about fifteen minutes left to play, Lovren - not for the first time - overcommitted and failed, allowing Townsend to break free unimpeded. It looked like disaster loomed, but Milner was able to stave off catastrophe with a desperate tackle that sent the ball out for a corner. As it so happened, disaster was only briefly averted. The ensuing corner eluded Firmino at the near post, and Benteke - practically unattended - was allowed to head home for his second.
The cards already on the table looked incapable of summoning an equalizer for Liverpool, much less a winner, so the dice were rolled. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alberto Moreno, and Marko Grujić were brought on in quick succession for Lovren, Milner, and Clyne respectively. The remaining minutes, including six minutes of stoppage time, were a frantic but somewhat aimless affair from the home side, and there were once again sightings of supporters leaving the grounds early. Palace both defended and time-wasted with vigor, and left with all the points.
A visit to Watford at Vicarage Road is next, and if Liverpool don’t figure out how to beat a side they should beat before then, they may find themselves learning to do so in next year’s Europa League competition.