Crystal Palace 0 - 2 Liverpool
Liverpool: Milner (PEN) 44’, Mané 90+3’
It took a penalty, a red card, and some resolute defending, but Liverpool pulled out three points at one of their bogey grounds on Monday night, continuing their perfect record to start the season.
Taking advantage of a full week’s rest in these early stages of the season, Jürgen Klopp named an unchanged line-up from the side that pummeled West Ham last Sunday. Predictably, Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace were content to sit back in their manager’s patented banks of four, ceding possession and space in the wide areas to the visitors, and, with the exception of a pair of hickups early — with Salah and Mané nearly breaking through — they were exceptionally successful at just that in the opening 20 minutes.
A mishit Mamadou Sakho pass was intercepted by Naby Keïta, but Mohamed Salah was unable to control the ball as it bounced to him in a disorganised Palace box. Minutes later, the ball trickled over the line behind Wayne Hennessey, but Sadio Mané was correctly adjudged to have clattered into the goalkeeper in the preceding duel.
Halfway through the frame, the traveling Kop were on their feet, as £52m man Keïta spun away from a charging Andros Townsend at the edge of his own box, advanced with the ball, and dumped a gorgeous 60-yard lob onto the toes of a streaking Salah. The Egyptian’s first touch was exquisite, but his finish lacked the same delicacy, and the ball was hooked wildly over both the onrushing Hennessey and the bar.
A few minutes later, Keïta gifted Palace their best opportunity of the half, as he lazily passed the ball backwards to an inattentive Virgil van Dijk. Townsend snatched it up and unleashed a swerving effort from 25 yards that crashed off the bar. Wilfried Zaha pounced on the rebound, but Joe Gomez did well to get in the way of the effort.
Some slick interplay between Liverpool’s illustrious front three ended with a Salah shot getting blocked into the path of Keïta, but his sneaky effort at the near post was blocked for a corner by Hennessey. Just past the half hour mark, a chipped ball into Salah saw the Egyptian flick a cutback towards the penalty spot from the byline, but Andrew Robertson was unable to get his body shape in order, and sliced his volley well over.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka has been a revelation at right-back for the Eagles this past year, and with five minutes to go in the half, he latched onto a long ball over the top, flicked it over Mané, and fired a driven ball across the Reds’ six-yard box, but no Palace attacker was on hand to dispatch the pass.
Minutes later, James Milner battled Zaha for the ball and released Keïta, who sprung Mané down the left-side channel. From a narrow angle, the Senegalese forward attempted a cheeky effort at the near post, and while he looked to have caught Hennessey out, the ball whizzed over the bar.
With time running out, Firmino found Salah in the box, and some tricky footwork and clumsy Sakho feet later, the Egyptian was awarded a penalty. James Milner stepped up and calmly dispatched the spot kick, improving his team’s position and his manager’s mood ahead of the break.
The hosts were far more adventurous to start the second half, a risky game considering the Reds’ ability to break with speed and purpose. Four minutes into the frame, some calm possession play under pressure at the back saw Keïta release Robertson down the left, and the Scot drove a ball towards Salah in front of goal. A long toe from Sakho and some excellent goalkeeping saw the striker chase the ball towards the touchline rather than goal, however, and while Salah’s cutback found Keïta at the edge of the box, the Guinean’s effort was comfortably saved.
On 53 minutes, Alisson was called into action again, moving across his line quickly to keep out a well-place Luka Milivojevic free-kick, and on the hour mark, a Salah volley from 18 yards was deflected just past the post of a wrong-footed Hennessey. Jordan Henderson came on for James Milner, and while Palace were seeing more of the ball, they were struggling to create chances.
One arrived on 73 minutes, though, as Zaha cut inside from the right and unleashed a driven effort under Trent Alexander-Arnold, but Liverpool’s new goalkeeper was up to the task, gather comfortably.
Just two minutes later, the Reds sprung another counter, and as Salah raced through on goal, he got his heels clipped by Wan-Bissaka just outside the box. Adjudged to have denied a goalscoring opportunity, the 20-year old was sent off, leaving Palace with a mountain to climb. Salah’s effort from the subsequent free-kick nicked the head of James Tomkins and bounced fortuitously over the bar.
There were a few good chances for the Reds to end the game, Salah and Mané picking each other out, with the former’s effort well saved and the latter’s header tipped over the bar, but there would be another goal in it, and, of course, it came off a counter.
Following a Palace corner, Salah gathered the ball and sprung Mané, who did well to cut in front of Patrick van Aanholt, and perhaps even better to stay on his feet as he rounded Hennessey. With the defender left in his wake and goalkeeper prostrate, the Senegalese attacker tucked the ball into an open net, taking his tally on the season to three in two games, and having scored 14 in his last 18 in a red shirt.
The timing and nature of the goals, along with the red card, could make the result seem fortuitous, but the fact of the matter is that Liverpool did more than enough to win, and with a sharper Salah on the pitch, probably would’ve won by more than the two goals. Crystal Palace made the Reds work for it, though, and this sort of stubborn organisation remains the best way to
It’s hard to escape the feeling that something is different, however, and that this is exactly the sort of game that Liverpool would have dropped points in only last season; one of those 12 annoying draws that eventually saw them finish 25 points behind the champions. And on a night when the offense was marginally dulled, a comfortable clean sheet makes things much easier. Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker look worth every penny of the £130m investment they represent, while Joe Gomez has benefited immensely from the guidance of the Dutchman next to him.
A shorter turnaround this time, as Brighton visit Anfield on Saturday, undoubtedly still flying after their 3-2 home win over Manchester United this weekend. Klopp’s men will be looking to drag them back down to earth.