Unconvincing Liverpool going top sends ominous warning to Premier League title rivals

Jurgen Klopp loathes these early kick-offs, but he will have loved how this turned out right at the end and was alert enough for some late inspiration. It was his introduction of Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott that turned a drab and VAR-disrupted game at Crystal Palace. The two young midfielders transformed a 1-0 defeat into a 2-1 victory with Jones cleverly supplying an assist for the equaliser and then Elliott offering a thundering finish in the 90th minute.

Roy Hodgson might well say that a second booking for Jordan Ayew for a foul on Elliott was even more influential since that came just before Mohamed Salah struck. The Palace manager told the ref as much, receiving a booking. Either way, the three minutes that involved Elliott’s introduction, Ayew’s expulsion and Salah’s goal ultimately decided where the three points were going.

They were among many interventions on the day, which had played into a stop-start game that Palace probably had the better off. Or, at least, had their game plan worked better. The most relevant aspect for Liverpool is another win without being that convincing. The title race continues to take shape.

As to whether this Liverpool team are taking shape for the title race. Well, they aren’t yet firing and Klopp is constantly having to make changes, as illustrated by the key substitutions here.

There are two ways to look at that, as Liverpool keep picking up three points. One is that this is unsustainable and they will gradually be caught out. Another is that a growing team is keeping momentum as they continue to find their feet. That might be ominous for everyone else if they do manage a new-year run in the way they did in 2021-22. For the moment, all they can do is win, which is what they are doing.

Mohamed Salah celebrates with Cody Gakpo after scoring Liverpool’s first goal (EPA)
Mohamed Salah celebrates with Cody Gakpo after scoring Liverpool’s first goal (EPA)

That did look a doubt for quite some time. It said much about the broad quality of the game that the most noteworthy incidents for long periods were VAR checks. Perhaps this was one case where stopping the play was welcome, although few would want to joke about that.

Crystal Palace might well argue it followed the general flow of the game that both penalty checks were for them since they did have the game’s only big moment before the goal. Alisson did superbly to prevent Hodgson’s side going ahead even earlier, acrobatically reaching across to touch Jefferson Lerma’s shot onto the post.

That had been set up by Jordan Ayew, who was probably the game’s outstanding performer until he suffered from a refereeing intervention himself. It was his energy on the run that constantly forced Liverpool onto the back foot. Palace’s Will Hughes won the ball off Wataru Endo from behind, setting Odsonne Edouard to be pushed by Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk. If that was a push, though, it meant that Hughes’ intervention should have been viewed as a push too. That was exactly how Andy Madley saw it on the screen and overruled the penalty.

Palace then eventually had one that Madley didn’t see. Just before the hour, Jarell Quansah went in on Jean-Philippe Mateta in the box. It looked like a penalty but probably warranted a few viewings to make it clear. So, after over a minute of play, Madley was instructed to try exactly that. He pointed to the spot. Mateta waited for Alisson to commit and placed it to the other side.

Crystal Palace's Jean-Philippe Mateta scores the opening goal from the penalty spot (AFP via Getty Images)
Crystal Palace's Jean-Philippe Mateta scores the opening goal from the penalty spot (AFP via Getty Images)

The game had finally come through the other side, too. Although Klopp looked at the decision incredulously, the penalty did have the effect of enlivening his team. So did his changes. The game itself entirely shifted in that crucial three-minute spell.

A raft of substitutions were, most notably Elliott for the ineffective Darwin Nunez as well as Jones for Dominik Szoboszlai. It made Hodgson immediately think about reshaping, but only partly because of the change in shape. Elliott got on the ball and Ayew went in on with some force from behind. Madley gave him a second booking and Palace had lost their main attacking threat.

Liverpool pushed them straight back and, with Palace pulling everyone back, Jones found himself on the ball in the area. He displayed superb presence of mind to roll the ball across to Salah whose shot was deflected past Sam Johnstone - the Egyptian’s 200th goal for the Reds.

Hodgson was booked for protesting. He soon had even more to worry about as Johnstone went off injured. Substitute Remi Matthews initially made two good saves and one strong catch. Liverpool were by then besieging Palace, though. Elliott tried one and beat Matthews. The eruption at that Liverpool end was countered by the fury of the Palace fans.

There was more discussion of the refereeing and VAR. The most important words of the day, however, ended up being Klopp telling Jones and Elliott to go on. It means Liverpool keep going in this race. That’s one case where it can’t be said it’s too early.