But seriously, why did it have to Crystal Palace? All of the ingredients for a signature Liverpool letdown were unhappily in place in the lead up to the match: first fixture after a long international break? Check. A looming midweek match to distract from the job at hand? Check. An early kickoff (of which the Reds had previously won only 7 of 22 in the Klopp era)? Check. Playing Crystal Title-Ruining Palace? Check and double check.
Despite the chances of securing a top four finish being a near statistical certainty, Liverpool supporters had nevertheless already chewed the nails down the nubs before the Matchday 32 starting lineups were even announced. Anxiety levels spiked further as the name of one Wilfried Zaha appeared on the team sheet, since the host’s best player by far had been a doubt prior to that moment due to niggling injuries. With the once-Red and now tormentor, Christian Benteke also starting, it was clear that the plan was to follow the template of route one football that had proven successful for Jose Mourinho and Man United only a few weeks prior.
Furthermore, alhough not new news, the absence of Emre Can and Joe Gomez to injury meant that the rusty Jordan Henderson got the start against a robust Palace midfield, while the still defensively naïve Trent Alexander-Arnold would be matched up against the electric Zaha. And sure enough, from the moment the opening whistle blew, Roy Hodgson took aim at each of these weaknesses listed above and gleefully fired away.
Inside 11 minutes, Zaha had already broken inside of young Trent multiple times following long balls over the top, with the Ivorian catching the full back ball napping to finally latch onto one such punt from Wayne Hennessey via a flick on from Tekkers before being brought down by an onrushing Loris Karius for a clear penalty. Luka Milivojevic powerfully converted the spot kick confirming our worst fears that it today was indeed not going to be a walk through the Selhurst Park.
The Reds, to their credit responded gamely, even if disjointedly. The host’s combative midfield of Milivojevic, James Tomkins and Yohan Cabaye snapped into tackles and physically bullied their counterparts into mistakes, depriving the electric Liverpool front three of service while a solid Palace back line maintained impressive discipline. Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah in particular were noticeably off the boil, with a defensive coach like Hodgson realizing that the best way to limit the free-scoring Egyptian in particular is to smother him with numbers early on the match and never allow him to see single coverage, ensuring that the Premier League’s leading scorer doesn’t get a chance to build up a deadly head of steam.
Indeed, most of the attacking inspiration came from the least-heralded member of the attack force in Sadio Mané. The winger was at the center of much of the good things Liverpool did going forward in the first half, but in truth, he had a bit of a strange game. Down 1-0, the wide man found himself in the box and appeared to have been clipped skipping past his defender. Even in real time, it was clear to see that a viable crossing option caused Mané to hesitate a beat too long before deciding to go down, drawing a yellow card for simulation.
In the second half, he was again pushed over, this time outside the box, and did that thing players do where they grab the ball with their hands to stop play when they believe there to be an obvious foul, typically with the compliance of the referee. Neil Swarbrick, however, did not agree this time, bizarrely calling a deliberate handball but refraining from producing the second yellow such an infraction would’ve merited.
Jürgen Klopp sensed matters would boil over soon, sending on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in his place almost immediately. In between those two low moments, the Senegalese forward excelled for the visitors, dragging his side back into the match with a tap-in from a Milner cross in the 48th minute to make it 1-1.
Adam Lallana then came on in the 63rd minute for the invisible Gini Wijnaldum to try help his side push on for the win, but worryingly had to be substituted a scant five minutes later after going down clutching his hamstring. The decision by Klopp to send on a defender in Dejan Lovren for the injured Englishman seemed on the surface a pragmatic one to protect the point. Palace had been the better team for much of the match to that point and admittedly deserved something from the game.
But similar to other scrappy 2-1 wins over the likes of Leicester City and Burnley this season have shown, Liverpool are discovering how to find three points when the balance of the match is 50/50, a crucial marker of champions.
On 84 minutes, Oxlade-Chamberlain shrugged off Zaha and crossed to Andy Robertson, with the excellent full back finding Salah in the box to calmly slot past the keeper and allowing all of Red Liverpool to finally let out the breath that had been held in to that point in the match.
If this retelling of such a vital win sounds gloomy, it is because one can be assured that no Liverpool supporter enjoyed anything about this match outside of the result. The game was hard, arduous, low on quality and probably bad for our collective mental health.
Klopp’s gegenpressing thrives on sides who want to play out from the back, which has started forcing the opponents to play long ball to escape the pressure. This has now been shown to not only be a desperation tactic but actually a route to victory; and if opposing teams have the right personnel, they know that they can continue to aerially attack the vulnerable right side of Reds defense until Liverpool prove they can stop them. The return of Joe Gomez and Nathaniel Clyne at full back will help, but an upgrade at right-sided center back is needed (*cough* Toby Alderweireld is available *cough*).
The next 10 days will be difficult; a derby day sandwiched between two dates with one of the best teams in Europe in Manchester City will try Klopp and his squad at a period when they are hobbling. However, tomorrow and beyond can worry about itself; today we can simply sit back, exhale and offer our weary applause.