Elliott’s late winner sends Liverpool top with comeback at 10-man Palace

<span>Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

A scrappy, tetchy game of football; two disputed penalty decisions; a deflected equaliser; whole minutes of aimless waiting around while a man in shorts watched a little screen. And then, finally, a moment of grace that this game categorically did not deserve and Liverpool barely did. It came from Harvey Elliott, gliding through the Crystal Palace defence like a man dancing on lily pads, scoring the injury-time goal that earned Liverpool another grubby and scowling three points. Improbably, almost imperceptibly, they are now top of the Premier League, after Arsenal’s defeat at Aston Villa.

And in the end, the only thing that ended up “spoiled” was Roy Hodgson’s day. After being forced to apologise for his comments in midweek that Palace fans needed to be more grateful, this was a fixture that suited his browbeaten underdog persona perfectly. Palace did almost everything right here: frustrated, defended tightly, scored on the break. Until a soft second yellow card issued to Jordan Ayew with 15 minutes remaining, they were good value for a famous victory.

Related: ‘I am absolutely sick’: Roy Hodgson rails at state of laws and refereeing

But Ayew’s dismissal turned the game, invited even more Liverpool pressure, opened up just a little more space for them to operate. Mohamed Salah equalised soon afterwards, Jürgen Klopp’s substitutions were ruthless and proactive, Elliott beautifully seized the points late on, and yet they were still reliant on the heroics of their goalkeeper Alisson in the 100th minute to seal their victory. Liverpool’s two goals came from their only two shots on target.

And, of course, there is still a good deal of room for improvement from a team who fancy themselves potential champions. For some reason – probably some cocktail of fatigue and travel and disgruntlement and breakfast fusilli – the vibes were all off here. The level of physical commitment was still fine, but the lack of creative spark was startling. Indeed, my notes from an utterly uneventful first half-hour consist of just three entries.

Quansah – bit nervous.

Ayew: clever player! Great appreciation of angles and weight distribution. Football’s Alan McManus?

If Darwin’s theory really holds then why hasn’t he evolved a way to stay onside?

So, yeah: not great content, by any standard. And the 20-year-old Jarell Quansah did look a bit jittery at centre-half, but he was by no means alone. There was a penalty for Palace, and then there wasn’t: Virgil van Dijk clumsily clattered into Odsonne Édouard from behind, only for VAR to overturn the decision for an earlier foul by Will Hughes. On the touchline, Hodgson unloaded a great big gob of spit on to his technical area. It was that kind of game.

Still Klopp kept trying to change things, kept moving his pieces around the board. Salah went up top for a bit and Darwin Núñez tacked out wide. Trent Alexander-Arnold went into the centre at half-time, replacing the soggy Wataru Endo. Quansah and Ryan Gravenberch were gone before the hour, although not before Quansah had given away the penalty from which Jean-Philippe Mateta put Palace ahead: a desperate tap on the ankle as both tried to meet a cross from Hughes.

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But ultimately Liverpool just had more tools in their bag. Cody Gakpo and Joe Gomez formed an effective partnership on the right; Elliott and Curtis Jones offered fresh legs in midfield. Salah tucked in his 200th Liverpool goal, a scrappy shot from close range after Michael Olise had failed to deal with a Gakpo cross, and as the minutes ticked away it felt like a point would be the limit of their ambitions. But then came Elliott, receiving the ball from Salah and finding the moment of poise and clarity amid the melee.

You had to feel a little for Palace, who amid a poor run of form, rotten luck with injuries and an increasing disconnect between the club and its supporters, showed plenty of resolve and fight. Their physicality earned them seven yellow cards, plus one for Hodgson himself, but they probably should have gone ahead early through Jefferson Lerma and could even have nicked a late equaliser through Joachim Andersen. Instead, they have gone even further backwards: no points, a suspension for Ayew and worrying injuries to Lerma, Édouard and Sam Johnstone.

Somehow, meanwhile, Liverpool have nine points from their last three games. It has been one hell of a slog, one that will have felt more like a gruelling military campaign than a sporting adventure. Still they roll on. A Europa League dead rubber on Thursday is followed by Manchester United at Anfield next Sunday: a potential inflection point in a season that, for all its fits and starts, may just be about to take flight.