Everyone in football has heard of the Invincibles. Now get used to the Inevitables. Just when it seems like Liverpool are about to drop points, they conjure up a late goal. Their 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Saturday was the latest example of Jurgen Klopp’s team playing poorly and coming away with three points as the seconds ticked down.
When Roberto Firmino scored the scrambled winner with five minutes remaining, a groan swept around the stadium. Few people seemed surprised. Exasperated, yes. Infuriated, certainly. But not shocked. This is what Liverpool do. Since the beginning of October Klopp’s team have scored game-changing goals in the last 15 minutes five times. It is becoming a habit.
“You cannot take it for granted,” the German said. “I don’t like to talk about it. It’s not like [we say] ‘very good, seven minutes to go, we start winning now.’ That’s not what we are.”
Klopp has called his players “mentality monsters” and Liverpool’s sense of purpose is perhaps their greatest quality. They have rarely played to their potential this season but continue to eke out victories.
Palace made life uncomfortable for the league leaders. Roy Hodgson’s team put pressure on the full backs and blunted the away side’s primary threat. Andy Robertson was pinned back for much of the first half and Patrick van Aanholt and Wilfried Zaha ganged up on Trent Alexander-Arnold. The 20-year-old, increasingly Liverpool’s source of creativity, was so discomforted that he gave away a corner from a back pass hoiked towards Alisson Becker from the halfway line.
Palace were on top for the majority of the first half. With Mo Salah on the bench with a sore ankle, Klopp deployed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a replacement. The 26-year-old struggled to get into the game – he did not have the pace to stretch the defence. The England midfielder switched wings with Sadio Mane but it made little difference.
Palace had plenty of possession and shots – 16 in the game – but too many of them were from long range. Just before half time they thought they had scored when James Tomkins turned in a corner but VAR came to Liverpool’s rescue. Jordan Ayew pushed Dejan Lovren as the ball came across the box and Kevin Friend, the referee, disallowed the goal after a lengthy period of contemplation. Selhurst was agog with fury. You could see the crowd’s point.
Superficially, Palace dominated the midfield but Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum were happy to cede ground until their opponents neared the final third. They are primarily a defensive unit that allows Liverpool’s full backs to join the attack. Most of the time they kept the home side’s forwards at arm’s length but when given a chance to break they were quick to move the ball upfield. Fabinho and Henderson both released Mane in dangerous positions but the Senegalese was unable to take advantage. He would not be denied indefinitely.
Four minutes into the second half a Palace attack broke down, Liverpool poured forward and Robertson found Mane in the area. Vicente Guaita got a hand to the forward’s rather tepid shot but the effort crept in off the post.
That seemed to be that. Hodgson’s team blustered but, until Christian Benteke’s introduction as a substitute, never really looked like scoring. Benteke, energised against his former club, ran at the defence and sparked panic. He found Andros Townsend at the edge of the area and the winger shunted the ball to Zaha in the box. The striker’s precise shot went across Alisson into the far corner of the net. With eight minutes left it felt like a draw was a fair result.
Lesser teams would have sat back and accepted the away point but Liverpool committed men forward. Virgil van Dijk bundled an Alexander-Arnold corner goalwards and even though a trio of Palace defenders tried vainly to hack the ball away, it fell to Firmino, who notched the scruffiest of winners. “Scoring late is good and enjoyable but we would much rather be 2-0 or 3-0 up and see out the game,” Robertson said. “We cannot keep relying on it but it is good we have that mentality and we did not panic because we have been in this position so many times.”
Belief takes teams a long way. Liverpool’s unbeaten league run could equal a club-record of 31 games if they beat Brighton & Hove Albion in front of the Kop on Saturday. They would like to get the business done early for a change and would love a sparkling performance but last-gasp goals feel like the hallmark of champions. Klopp is realistic enough to know that bringing the title to Anfield is far from inevitable but victories like the one at Palace bolster conviction.