For Liverpool fans, the memories of the last Monday night trip to SE25 were quite painful. They had conceded three goals in the space of 12 minutes on a fateful Monday night in 2014 to ensure that they finished that magnificent season in second place. Since then the Reds have made amends and won quite regularly at Crystal Palace. On Monday night, they added one win to their series of wins at Selhurst Park.
Crystal Palace under Roy Hodgson, with two ex-Liverpool players handling key roles at both ends of the pitch – Benteke leading the line and Sakho the defence, were always going to be a tough opponent to beat. They had their own runs to keep up – they had won the last three at home and wanted to win the fourth consecutive home game for the first time since 1990. They were also unbeaten in seven games before Monday. So, when they started quite energetically, matching Liverpool press for press and dribble for dribble, it was not a surprise. As expected, the Eagles defended narrow and deep, ensuring all shots were blocked and saved. They even had a very good chance to score when Townsend’s out of the box shot avoided Alisson’s outstretched hand but bounced off the crossbar. Nevertheless, Liverpool’s persistent attacking was rewarded when Sakho tripped Salah in the Palace penalty box in the 44th minute. Milner scored the resulting penalty.
Palace began the second half looking to equalize quickly and did cause some problems to the Reds defence but Liverpool held on. The Reds were again rewarded for their persistence when a quick break from Salah led to Aaron Wan-Bissaka tackling him while the Egyptian was the last man and had a reasonable chance to shoot. The referee gave Wan-Bissaka a red card, which tilted the balance firmly in favour of the Reds.
Liverpool were not off their marks as quickly as they were against West Ham last weekend but after the initial 15 minutes were creating chances very regularly. They were quite assured in passing around the Eagles’ penalty area. But, most of their initial attacks came from the flanks as Palace were sitting narrow allowing Robertson and Trent to go far upfield. Trent was the primary crosser but was not very successful. Liverpool’s midfield – primarily Keita and Milner were instrumental in getting the ball when it was lost and keeping it. In the 44th minute, it was the combination of Firmino and Salah that created the opportunity for Liverpool. Firmino passed to Salah who was just inside the box. Salah turned and was about to shoot when he was tripped by Sakho, who had till then done a stellar job of keeping the Egyptian under control.
In the second half, while Palace moved up the field a bit, Liverpool were quite dangerous on the break. On one such break, Salah was again nearly tackled in the box (by Hennessey) but he kept his cool and set up a chance for Keita, who shot just wide. It was again a break in the 75th minute when Salah was about to go one-on-one with Hennessey but Wan-Bissaka took him down and earned a red card. Despite their numerical deficit, Palace attacked well in those 15 minutes and even in stoppage time. However, one final break from Liverpool made sure that Sadio Mane got his mandatory goal against Crystal Palace.
That goal ensured that Liverpool won their first away game since March (also at Selhurst Park) and kept pace with Manchester City.
Liverpool made a total of 16 attempts at goal, of which 6 were on target. Palace had a total of 8 attempts at goal and only two were on target. The Reds made an attempt every 5.9 minutes, while the hosts made an attempt every 11.9 minutes. Liverpool’s xG total for the match was 2.83 as per www.understat.com and was 2.52 as per www.fantasyfootballscout.com. Palace’s numbers ranged between 0.38 and 0.42. FiveThirtyEight’s xG numbers give better credit to Palace. They have rated Liverpool’s non-shot xG (expected goals from the play around opponent’s penalty area) at 3.2 but they have also rated Palace’s non-shot xG at 0.9 i.e. the Eagles could have scored at least one goal based on their attacking play around the Reds’ penalty area. Their forwards, especially Christian Benteke was kept quiet by Liverpool’s defence.
Liverpool’s defensive job was made easy by the fact that they had to keep a check on just a couple of players – Zaha and Benteke. Wan-Bissaka did cause Robertson some problems on Liverpool’s left flank but he could not cause too much trouble. Van Dijk and Joe Gomez did a good job of keeping the Palace front two in check. The Dutchman won 9 out of 16 aerial duels, most of them with Benteke, while between them both they put in 14 clearances, blocks and interceptions, blunting the Eagles’ attack.
For Crystal Palace, the task was much tougher. Sadio Mane and Salah were constantly around their penalty area and Keita provided one more attacking option. Firmino was relatively quiet but it was his pass that set up Salah for the shot, which Sakho impeded. On both sides of that mistake, Sakho was brilliant, making sure Salah did not have any space to shoot. Tomkins too did a good job, of winning tackles and putting in the crosses, blocks and interceptions. However, the Palace defence was overwhelmed by Liverpool’s attacking options. Something tells me that we will be hearing more of this story during the season.
Liverpool are being considered the favourites to challenge Manchester City for the title. Their performance on Monday night strengthened their credentials. They went to a difficult venue, beat a team that was on an upswing and returned home with a clean sheet. The other top-six contenders should sit up and take notice. Crystal Palace should not be dismayed either. They played well and within their capabilities, and still managed to trouble Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool for some time. Some of the future challenges would be much easier.