Grudgingly but sportingly, the Kop gave Christian Benteke a well-earned round of applause when he exited Crystal Palace’s latest Anfield triumph. The striker had bruised, battered and beaten his former club on his return to Merseyside and may well have done the same to their top four prospects. “I know people will think: ‘The Champions League slips through our fingers again,’” said Jürgen Klopp. “But only if we let it slip. Our job is to squeeze everything we can out of this season.”
Klopp remained defiant in the face of Liverpool’s first defeat in eight games. Defiance is only a fleeting virtue in his Liverpool defence, however, and their top-four rivals will draw encouragement from how Sam Allardyce exposed weaknesses in recording his first league win at Anfield in 14 visits as manager. His Palace team are almost certainly secure in the Premier League after a third consecutive win at Liverpool and adding Klopp’s team to a recent list of scalps including Chelsea and Arsenal.
“You must be sick of us,” the Palace fans chanted after Benteke scored twice, forced Dejan Lovren off after an accidental collision, dominated in the air and capitalised on another Liverpool lapse at a set-piece to decide the outcome. Allardyce targeted Liverpool’s flaws both at corners and behind their full-backs, and took great satisfaction afterwards in detailing how he did so, but a ponderous attack and a lack of options amid a growing injury list will also trouble Klopp. Anfield was a nervous place, and with good reason, it transpired.
“I told the boys after the game that it was frustrating, disappointing and we made mistakes,” the Liverpool manager said. “We have to feel it today. We don’t like it but defeats always make sense and there is a reason not only for what happened in the game but how you react. There is one wonderful month to go, four matches, and we will not give up. 100% not. We all need to get more used to it than we are, a game like this, when it’s not the biggest excitement. I could see it in a few faces, in the body language, I could hear it a little bit too. The boys have delivered a lot of excitement but now it’s about serious football, do what you have to do, and we will do it.”
Philippe Coutinho had ignited a slow-burning contest with a touch of brilliance, sweeping a free-kick from at least 25 yards over the Palace wall and just inside Wayne Hennessey’s right hand post, although the goalkeeper’s positioning invited trouble in the presence of the gifted Brazilian. It was an exquisite strike regardless. “I couldn’t criticise my players for that goal,” said Allardyce. “They had to rely on Coutinho with a wonder goal to get in front.”
Liverpool had required something special to break a strong Palace side and lift their own uncertain start. It was therefore infuriating for Klopp when the home side conceded a cheap but well-worked equaliser just as they appeared to be taking the game under control.
Coutinho was central to Liverpool’s brightest moments. His perfect return ball to James Milner sent the left back through on the Palace goal and it took an excellent challenge by Jason Puncheon to halt him. Emre Can then squandered a clear opportunity to double Liverpool’s lead when Milner released Georginio Wijnaldum to the byline and he cut the ball back for his fellow midfielder. Can arrived on cue but his miss-hit shot veered towards the corner flag.
Allardyce’s team had offered little in the final third aside from a mazy run and low shot from Benteke that sailed wide of Simon Mignolet’s left-hand post. Their performance and threat improved considerably once Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend reverted to their natural wings, having started on the right and left respectively, and in Benteke they had a forward with the awareness and motive to capitalise on the nerves that crept into the Liverpool display.
The Belgium international, booked for diving under slight contact from Lovren inside the area, brought Palace level when the home defence was caught out by a simple clearance down the right flank from Joel Ward. Yohan Cabaye reacted quicker than Lovren to the defender’s ball and steered an inviting first time cross along the face of Mignolet’s goal. The unmarked Benteke found the roof of the net with a controlled finish.
Benteke grabbed his second when Liverpool’s weakness at defending set-pieces, corrected to good effect at West Bromwich Albion a week ago, reared its ugly head once more. Townsend’s second-half corner evaded both Roberto Firmino and Puncheon at the near post, sailed behind Joel Matip and in front of the Palace centre-forward to convert with a diving header.
Anxiety was palpable around Anfield before Benteke struck, with Palace displaying greater composure in possession and Liverpool toiling in attack. James Tomkins blocked a goal-bound shot from Coutinho after the Brazilian had stayed on his feet after a clumsy challenge from Martin Kelly inside the penalty area. Lucas Leiva sliced over and Klopp did all he could to bolster Liverpool’s forward options, but to no avail.