Salah 46, 75 Firmino 53 Mane 90+3
CRYSTAL PALACE 3
Townsend 34 Tomkins 65 Meyer 90+5
BY MATT WOOSNAM AT ANFIELD
A simple save, but a mighty roar. This was supposed to be Julian Speroni’s day. Start number 404 for Crystal Palace, his presence in goal was brought about in unfortunate circumstances, with first and second choice goalkeepers Wayne Hennessey and Vicente Guaita both absent through injury.
But the supporters didn’t mind, this was after all, a club legend who many believe is still preferable to Hennessey. That may be, but there is little room in top-flight football for sentimentality, and it became apparent as to why he is no longer considered a contender for the number one spot.
The reliable, ever-present face of the club was perhaps partially at fault for two of Liverpool’s goals, and largely for the third. It was against Everton on his debut 14-and-a-half years ago that he made a mistake to cost his side the game, so it was a cruel irony that possibly his final appearance for a club he has given so much to – and saved so many times – ended with a howler.
Make no mistake, he doesn’t deserve to have a fine career blemished by errors at its beginning or end. Such is the high esteem with which he is held by supporters, team-mates, and almost everyone who comes into contact with him, it is unlikely anyone will allow the narrative to be anything other than that of worshipping a hero, a consummate professional. Not unreasonably so, but in the context of this match, he was culpable for goals, not that it will be remembered in time, for the aforementioned reasons.
To the surprise of nobody, Eagles manager Roy Hodgson kept his team in more or less the same shape as he has for the majority of this campaign. It was peak Hodgson-ball for the opening 45 minutes but it became one of the best team performances of the season, save for the individual defensive errors which cost them a positive result.
It was a familiar tale for most of the first half. The Eagles looked unsure in attack, and without a genuine striker they had no outlet. Christian Benteke warmed the bench, and it is how he fares on his return which will determine whether Palace edge to safety or whether they are capable of pushing towards mid-table.
The Eagles were good. They were excellent in executing their game plan. Once again, they proved that when Wilfried Zaha moves wide to take his man on, and when he is in form, they can be both entertaining and effective. It is difficult to comprehend why Hodgson wasted him up front for so long – even without a proper striker.
He tricked James Milner not once, but twice, into bookable offences. He was involved in a superb team move for the opening goal. James Tomkins and James McArthur played their way out of a tight defensive situation, and the Scot set Patrick van Aanholt on his way down the left, who then played Zaha in, and the winger outpaced James Milner to drag the ball back for the onrushing Andros Townsend to slot beyond Alisson Becker.
But as has been the case so many times this season, individual defensive errors cost them. Admittedly Hodgson’s hands are tied in playing a defensive set-up, and in other situations it would stand a strong chance of being effective, but when the team unit is let down by individuals, it leaves so little prospect of recovery.
Two quick second-half goals saw Liverpool turn the game on its head – both with the aid of deflections.
First, Mohamed Salah was in prime position to capitalise on a deflection via McArthur to poke past a stranded Speroni, before Roberto Firmino cut inside and hit a deflected shot past the Palace goalkeeper.
Despite a subsequent mountain of pressure from the hosts, it would be Palace who, out of nowhere, found an equaliser. Tomkins rose unmarked at the back post to head in and make it 2-2. There was ample drama to come.
The Reds attacked Palace’s right, and Milner reached for the ball to put in what seemed like a harmless cross. Speroni failed to gather, tipped the ball goalwards, and Salah gratefully prodded home his second of the game to make it 3-2 – although it was certain to cross the line without his intervention.
Once again, Palace’s defence struggled when up against a quick forward. Salah was grateful time and again to sprint in behind and in on goal. Whenever they play a higher line, the two centre-backs are exploited.
It was game over when Sadio Mane parted the defence and slotted in to the far corner, despite Andy Robertson’s apparent handball in the build-up. But Palace refused to give up and Max Meyer capitalised on poor defending to make it 4-3, but it would ultimately only prove to be a consolation.
Despite netting more times than any other team in the top flight at Anfield this season, the lack of a striker is problematic, yet the likelihood of enhancing the squad by signing one this January is rapidly diminishing and looks unlikely. The goalkeeper Lucas Perri should sign this week, and one attacking player may arrive in SE25, but that is likely to be the Eagles’ only transfer dealings.
Palace will seldom win plaudits for enthralling football while their striking options are so limited, but their tenacity and willingness to fight for a result here was reminiscent of their victory at Manchester City before Christmas, and contributed to what was a fine contest.
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Speroni 4, Wan-Bissaka 6, Tomkins 6, Sakho 6, Van Aanholt 5, McArthur 7 (Meyer 81), Kouyate 5 (Schlupp 75), Milivojevic 6, Townsend 6, Ayew 5 (Wickham 81), Zaha 8. Not used: Tupper, Kelly, Dann, Benteke.