Having been thwarted by city rivals Everton in the Merseyside Derby on Sunday, Premier League’s runaway leaders Liverpool played host to Crystal Palace at Anfield on Wednesday evening as they seek to settle the first league title in 30 years with mathematical certainty. They entered the match with a 20-point gap between them and nearest competitors, Manchester City, needing only five more to wrap it up.
As for Palace, they came to the north-west of England sitting in ninth place with 42 points from the previous 30 rounds, and on the back of a fine performance which earned them a 0-2 triumph away to Bournemouth on Saturday. They are not without chances to reach a European spot by the end, though that will depend on many things; not least their own results and the results of the teams around them in the remaining rounds. It will also likely depend on the fate of Manchester City, who are currently disputing a two-year UEFA ban in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS).
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp was without the services of midfielder James Milner, defender Joel Matip and winger Xherdan Shaqiri. The Swiss international has been having a calf problem for a while. Milner and Matip started the Derby on Sunday, only to be withdrawn with a hamstring and a toe issue, respectively. Forward Mohamed Salah and left-back Andy Robertson missed that game, but they were named in the starting XI for this one.
Alisson Becker was in goal. Virgil van Dijk marshaled the defence with Joe Gomez by his side, and flanked by Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right and Robertson on the left. Fabinho took his place at the midfield base, with captain Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum further up. The trio of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino formed the attacking line.
Former Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson, now commanding the Eagles, couldn’t call upon defenders James Tomkins and another former Red, Martin Kelly, as well as winger Jeffrey Schlupp. Leaving captain Luka Milivojevic on the bench was a bit surprising.
Wayne Hennessey stood between the posts. Yet another ex-Liverpool player, Mamadou Sakho, paired up at the back with ex-Chelsea centre-back Gary Cahill, with Patrick van Aanholt on their left and Joel Ward on their right. James McCarthy, James, McArthur and Cheikhou Kouyate formed a very physical midfield section. Wingers Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend flanked striker Jordan Ayew upfront.
The First Half
Palace took the ball from the first whistle and tried to get organized from the back, but relentless high pressing right from the start earned Liverpool possession early on. The Reds attacked with patience, circulating the ball through the opposition half, but the doors to Hennessey’s goal were closed early on.
In the sixth minute, Van Dijk tried to find the run of Salah inside the box with a long pass, but the Palace goalkeeper came out and claimed the ball. Two minutes later, Townsend made a mess of a Henderson cross, but Salah and Wijnaldum failed to take advantage. Then it was Henderson’t turn to have a go himself as Mane found him with an accurate cross, but the Liverpool captain hit an uncontrolled volley far from the target.
The visitors tried to hit back on counterattack a few times in this period, but the combinations between Zaha and Ayew were quickly stopped.
And in the 15th minute, Palace’s hopes were severely dented as Zaha left the pitch injured. Max Meyer came on.
Liverpool quickly created a new chance – the work of Mane who cleverly tamed a long pass and flicked the ball on for the incoming Firmino, but the Brazilian’s low shot from just inside the box didn’t have enough power to beat Hennessey. The game went on in much the same way as at the start, with Liverpool mostly in possession and Palace defending in a very disciplined 4-5-1 shape, keeping their lines close together.
With Zaha out of the game, Hodgson’s men mostly looked to hit back through the quick feet of Townsend on the right, but Robertson and Van Dijk didn’t have too much difficulty in dealing with those rare situations.
In the 22nd minute, Ayew committed a needless foul some 20 yards from his goal, giving Liverpool a decent chance to shoot. Alexander-Arnold stepped up, perfectly bending his shot over the wall and into the top corner, and there was nothing Hennessey could do.
Nothing changed after the goal. Liverpool still attacked, and in the 28th minute they won another free-kick, this time wide on the left. Robertson swung it in, Hennessey cleared but only as far as Henderson whose volley hit the posts, and Van Dijk couldn’t get the rebound into the net with two Palace defenders on the line.
Ayew made another, similar mistake by putting in a late challenge on Fabinho, though this time it was a bit further. Fabinho had a go himself and hit it over the bar.
Things were turning a bit frustrating for the Eagles. Even when they managed to take the ball and start thinking about ways to hurt their opponents, they couldn’t get anywhere near the box and lost possession quickly.
There was a bit of a controversy in the 35th minute. Salah tried to lift the ball over Cahill who clearly stuck an arm out to stop it, but referee Martin Atkinson saw no reason to intervene, and nor did VAR. Quickly afterwards Liverpool had good chance to double their lead through Wijnadum, but the Dutchman missed the target by inches from around 12 yards.
Palace threatened seriously for the first time in the 42nd minute when Gomez made a mistake and gave the ball straight to Meyer just inside Liverpool’s half. Meyer burst forward and approached Van Dijk, but the Liverpool defender was positioned very well and forced him to shoot wide from 20 yards.
And two minutes later, the Reds made their domination count again. Fabinho sent a lovely pass over the heads of the Palace defence, Salah crept in behind Van Aanholt and slotted past Hennessey from close range.
Liverpool were now in cruising mode, keeping the ball well and slowing the pace of the game down, and they made sure no further excitements happened in the first half.
The Second Half
The Reds were still hungry for more after the break and they almost made it three after 30 seconds. Robertson broke down the left and whipped a cross through the six-yard area, Sakho decided not to react to avoid putting it in his own net, and Salah was just late at the far post.
It should be said the Palace tried to get back into the game. They tried to push forward, but they were pushing against a very strong tide and were soon forced back again.
As they moved forward in the 53rd minute, Fabinho dispossessed Meyer just outside the box and Liverpool sprung a counterattack, eventually ending with Robertson shooting from around 20 yards over the bar. Two minutes later, it was as if Fabinho had decided to show the left-back how it’s done.
Robertson himself passed him the ball at some 30 yards, and the Brazilian launched a rocket so powerful that Hennessey found himself flying through the air in vain again.
The home team marched on, and in the 57th minute Mane put the ball on the plate for Wijnaldum at no more than 10 yards, but the midfielder hit it through a forest of legs straight at Hennessey.
Attack after attack the Palace defence now endured. Liverpool wasted a few potentially dangerous moments through a slight drop in concentration, but they still looked like they could score again at any moment. Salah almost did from a yard outside the box in the 63rd minute, just missing the far post.
Then Klopp decided to freshen his team a bit. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on to replace Henderson and had a go from the edge of the box in his first attack. Hodgson also made a change, a double one, with Kouyate and McArthur making way for Milivojevic and Jairo Riedewald.
It seemed at that point that Liverpool’s pace had slackened somewhat, but it soon proved to be a bait. Palace moved forward in numbers and lost the ball, and then the Reds sprung their trap.
The trio of Firmino, Salah and Mane combined impeccably, and eventually a great pass from Salah found Mane in behind. The Senegalese burst into the box coming in from the left, and had no trouble slotting past Hennessey again.
It was a good moment for Klopp to give 19-year-old Neco Williams his Premier League debut, and the German did so in the 74th minute. Alexander-Arnold left the pitch, together with Firmino who was replaced by Takumi Minamino.
Palace players looked thoroughly shaken up in the final stage of the match. There’s no point in talking about getting the ball over the halfway line; they were having enough trouble getting it out of their box without hoofing it long. But even when they hoofed it long, it was immediately won by Liverpool and carried back towards the box.
On the other hand, there was much less urgency in Liverpool’s approach late on; understandably so. They now just kept the ball for long spells, switching sides and making their opponents run fruitlessly around. Ayew was obviously very tired of such running, and in the 84th minute he made way for 18-year-old Brandon Pierrick Keutcha. Klopp introduced another teenager at that point – 17-year-old Harvey Elliot came on for Robertson, along with Naby Keita who replaced Mane.
At the stroke of 90 minutes, a fantastic pass by young Williams got Salah in a one-on-one situation with Hennessey, but the Egyptian seemed too unfocused and the Palace goalkeeper came out on top of that one. Williams had a chance to score himself soon afterwards, but Sakho got in the way of his shot. Undeterred, the youngster had another go from the edge of the box after he had sent Milivojevic for the paper, but Hennessey was in the right place.
This was a Liverpool performance very different to the one on Sunday against Everton. And while a few Palace players occasionally stood out from the rest in terms of spirit and determination, every player in red was playing at top level for 90 minutes and there was no stopping them. They showed why they are so far at the top of the table and made anyone who doubts that they deserve the title look, to put it mildly, wrong.
Hodgson will probably bemoan the early injury of his arguably best player, but even Zaha could hardly have made a difference for his team against an opponent such as this. The Eagles will simply have to look to their upcoming matches for points in their quest for European football, and not look back on this one too much.
And speaking of quests, Liverpool could, in theory, become Premier League champions as early as this Thursday, when title defenders Manchester City travel to London to take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Should Pep Guardiola’s team fail to win, the race will be over and Liverpool crowned champions. And if City do win, the top two teams meet directly next Thursday at the Etihad. Anything but a City win there would clinch the title for Liverpool then, but even if Liverpool lose, they will still need only two points from the remaining six games to take the crown.
LIVERPOOL: Alisson N/A, Van Dijk 8, Gomez 7.5, Alexander-Arnold 8 (74′ Williams 7.5), Robertson 7.5 (84′ Elliott N/A), Fabinho 8, Henderson 7.5 (64′ Oxlade-Chamberlain 7), Wijnaldum 7.5, Mane 8, Salah 8, Firmino 8 (74′ Minamino 7).
CRYSTAL PALACE: Hennessey 7.5, Sakho 6, Cahill 6.5, Van Aanholt 6.5, Ward 6, McCarthy 5, McArthur 5.5, Kouyate 6, Zaha N/A (15′ Meyer 6.5), Townsend 6, Ayew 5 (84′ Keutcha N/A).
GOALS: Alexander-Arnold 24′, Salah 44′, Fabinho 55′, Mane 69′.
YELLOW CARDS: None.
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson.
DATE & VENUE: June 24, 2020, Anfield, Liverpool.