It was all going so well for Liverpool on a night that they knew they had to win in order to keep up the pressure on title favourites Manchester City, who won at bogey ground Goodison Park on Saturday evening to remain in the driving seat.
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Instead, unbelievable tactical naivety and shockingly bad defending meant Liverpool threw away a three-goal lead and effectively handed the Premier League title to City on a plate. Three Crystal Palace goals in nine minutes turned it into a nightmare evening for the visitors and all but extinguished their title dreams. Star striker Luis Suarez and many travelling Kopites were understandably left in tears.
Although mid-table Palace had nothing to play for after already securing their Premier League status, Tony Pulis stuck to his promise to play a full strength side and, as the Eagles had previously beaten Chelsea at Selhurst Park to dent their title chances, it was by no means certain that Liverpool would clinch the three points needed to keep their title aspirations alive.
Nevertheless, the Reds started the better and created several decent goalscoring opportunities before breaking the deadlock on 18 minutes. Johnson went down under the challenge of Bolasie in the box but his penalty appeal was harshly ignored by referee Mark Clattenburg. Sakho agonisingly headed Gerrard’s resulting right wing corner wide of goal, before Johnson also went close with a headed effort, directing Allen’s perfectly weighted lofted pass just over the bar.
Moments later, though, the ball was headed into the net, this time rather surprisingly by the smallest player on the pitch. Welshman Joe Allen evaded his marker and snuck to the back post, where he was free to head home Gerrard’s corner kick to give Liverpool an important lead.
|Allen opened the scoring|
You suspected, though, that all it would take to kill off Palace was a swift second goal after the break, and that’s what arrived. In fact, both Sturridge and Suarez scored to seemingly secure all three points for Liverpool beyond a shadow of a doubt.
After Speroni had beaten Sturridge’s shot clear and Suarez had blazed the rebound over the bar, the England striker marked his return to the starting line-up from injury with his 24th goal of the campaign, seeing his shot from the edge of the box deflected past Speroni and into the back of the net.
He went to celebrate with the substitutes who were warming up on the side lines but was then told to get the ball out of the net and make sure the match re-started as quickly as possible so that the Reds could rack up more goals. They immediately did, Suarez playing a superb one-two with Sterling and then burying the ball into the back of the net to inspire hopes of a Reds’ rout emulating their 9-0 drubbing of Crystal Palace at Anfield in the 1989/1990 season.
|Suarez grabs the ball after scoring Liverpool's third|
Central to Crystal Palace’s remarkable comeback was substitute Dwight Gayle. The 23-year old, who bagged Palace’s consolation in their 3-1 defeat at Anfield earlier in the season, caused Liverpool’s defence all types of problems and netted twice to break Kopites’ hearts.
It all started, however, when slack defending from Glen Johnson allowed Damien Delaney space to launch a speculative effort on goal. His 25-yard shot deflected off Johnson and flew into the top corner to give Palace hope and reward their fans’ excellent support throughout.
At that stage, Liverpool had to shut up shop and make sure that the game was won. At 3-0 up it was understandable why the Merseysiders were vying for more goals because the game appeared already won and there remained the possibility of reducing the goal difference gap between Liverpool and City. As soon as we conceded, though, goal difference became essentially irrelevant since we were never going to catch up with City after Palace scored.
The fact that Liverpool didn’t batten down the hatches and see out the match, instead opting to continue to relentlessly pour forward in search of more goals, arguably reveals that Rodgers falls into an equal and opposite error to Mourinho. The Portuguese Chelsea manager only knows how to play defensively, whereas his Northern Irish apprentice only seems able to play attacking football. That cost the Reds last night, as they were left wide open at the back and were therefore punished by Pulis’ Palace.
Although Coutinho immediately went close at the other end as his shot was tipped over the bar by Speroni, a Palace counter attack from the resulting corner concluded with Gayle reducing the arrears further. Having ridiculously sent seven men forward for the corner, Liverpool were exposed at the back as Bolasie broke and Palace poured forward. Eventually Bolasie squared to Gayle, who was allowed the time to turn home from close range by Flanagan, whose marking was far too loose.
Liverpool’s misery was complete two minutes from time when Skrtel was left to deal with two attackers on his own. As a result, Murray chested a long ball forward into the path of Gayle, who clinically fired past Mignolet to complete an unbelievable comeback for Crystal Palace.
|Gayle dashes the Reds' title dreams|
When Mark Clattenburg finally blew the final whistle five minutes into injury time he almost certainly blew the whistle on not just the game, but also Liverpool’s title hopes. The Reds may well be one point clear at the top of the Premier League table, but City have two home matches versus mid-table opposition remaining and have to lose one or draw both of them. Even if they draw one of those games, the Blues will still be in the driving seat due to their superior goal difference.
It’s going to take a miracle of Istanbul proportions for Liverpool to win the League from this position.