On an afternoon where Christian Benteke and Mamadou Sakho celebrated Crystal Palace’s equaliser by seeking out each other before having what appeared to be a game of paper, scissors or stone-like secret handshake while trying not to smile, Liverpool’s pursuit for a finishing position inside the Premier League’s top four skidded against the rocks.
Including Benteke and the ineligible Sakho, there were six people involved at Palace with Liverpool links. When Benteke scored for a second time, Dr Zaf Iqbal, fitness coach Ryland Morgans and physiotherapist Chris Morgan, remained firmly to their seats while Benteke casually walked in the direction of the Palace supporters, not getting carried away.
It was Sammy Lee who could not hold back, winner of two European Cups with his home-town club, returning to Anfield as assistant of the visiting team. His face revealed the reality: this victory for Palace will probably keep them up; this defeat for Liverpool makes you doubt them all over again. Is this a team that really deserves to play in the Champions League next season?
Liverpool’s victories at Stoke and West Brom had convinced some they were capable of overcoming the type of opponents they have struggled to beat for years; those that defend in numbers and use muscle and bone to stop them. At half-time the doubts about Liverpool’s credentials had already returned, with Benteke’s goal in front of the Kop his eighth against Liverpool since 2012.
Klopp decided to sell Benteke last summer because he demands his forwards act as the first line of defence. That was not Benteke’s responsibility here, with Palace’s tactical plan involving ten players not including Benteke standing behind the ball, affording Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip as much time in possession as they wanted.
Liverpool’s play was not quick enough to unsettle Sam Allardyce’s team but a lead was fashioned because of Philippe Coutinho’s brilliance from set-pieces. His thirteenth Premier League goal from a free-kick was delivered from twenty-five yards out. It was one that lifted over the wall, dipping slightly before racing past Wayne Hennessey, who had no chance of saving it.
Palace would need to be more adventurous. The sight of Yohan Cabaye appearing on the right wing was a sign they were prepared to be, and from his perfect cross, Benteke thumped a shot high into Simon Mignolet’s net.
The concern for Liverpool was, Palace’s bench was stronger than theirs. If it was Klopp’s substitutions who won the game at Stoke, here it would probably need to be the starting eleven. Rhian Brewster was included amongst Liverpool’s replacements for the first time having trained with the first team squad all week at Melwood. Aged seventeen, Klopp described Brewster in a pre-match interview as a “natural striker,” warning, though, he was unlikely to feature and in the end he didn't. Brewster was one of four teenagers sitting behind Liverpool’s manager – the most experienced player being Alberto Moreno, the twenty-four year-old left back who has only started two league games this season.
Liverpool’s form was reasonable and their position in the table good and so, it is easy to forget they have been missing their captain, their leading scorer and their leading maker of goals for weeks. Throw Daniel Sturridge into that group of Jordan Henderson, Sadio Mane and Adam Lallana and you also have the would-be leading goalscorer if he wasn't unavailable most of the time. Ultimately, when a squad is as thin as Liverpool’s, you are hoping for luck with injuries otherwise it will catch up with you eventually.
Liverpool should have been awarded a penalty in the second half when Martin Kelly - deputising in the centre of defence for Sakho - kicked Coutinho from behind but because the Brazilian stayed on his feet – even though it knocked him off balance – he was punished for his determination not to go down.
Klopp needed to try something else but he did not have the options. Palace, in truth, did not have to do very much at all to win. Their clinching goal came when Liverpool did not deal with Andros Townsend’s corner and Benteke nodded in. It prompted the Palace fans to sing, “You must be sick of us.” This was their third victory at Anfield in as many seasons. Suddenly, Manchester United and Arsenal see a door opening. Suddenly, perhaps Hull City and Swansea see a door closing.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet; Clyne (Grujic 87), Lovren (Alexander-Arnold 78), Matip, Milner (Moreno 83); Wijnaldum, Lucas, Can; Firmino, Origi, Coutinho.
Substitutes not used: Karius, Gomez, Brewster, Woodburn.
Crystal Palace (4-2-3-1): Hennessey; Ward, Kelly, Tomkins, Schlupp; Cabaye (Delaney 83), Milvojevic; Zaha, Puncheon, Townsend; Benteke (Campbell 90).
Substitutes not used: Speroni, Van Aanholt, Flamini, McArthur, Sako.