The Merseysiders’ title hopes are left in tatters after a calamitous passage of defending at Crystal Palace ruined another outstanding attacking display
By Wayne Veysey at Selhurst Park
One of the most remarkable Premier League matches of all ended with an inconsolable double-winning player of the year hiding his face from the world only 15 minutes after he was trying to extend Liverpool’s advantage to four goals.
Liverpool’s meltdown was so sudden, and Palace’s comeback so extraordinary, that all the emotions football can offer seemed to be squeezed into one bite-sized segment.
At the final whistle, the visiting players slumped to their knees en masse. A distraught Steven Gerrard, with tears gently rolling down his face, ushered the television cameras away, while Luis Suarez was bawling his eyes out so uncontrollably that he covered his face with his shirt and was led to the dressing room by unused substitute Kolo Toure.
It was raw and brutal. Liverpool supporters looked on from the away end in utter disbelief. Some were in tears, but most stood motionless and virtually expressionless, unable to take in what they had just seen.
By contrast, Palace’s raucous support celebrated with the unrestrained fervour that has been their trademark in a stunning turnaround under Tony Pulis’ wily leadership.
Selhurst Park bounced and rocked. Liverpool, who had penetrated, dominated and then crumbled, were in a state of shock.
The images provided a riveting footnote to what had been a loopy, bonkers and completely intoxicating chapter of play.
Cold analysis of this 3-3 classic will show that Liverpool’s dodgy defence let them down after their effervescent attack had laid the foundation for what should have been a convincing victory that kept the pressure on title favourites Manchester City.
“Man City will go on and win it now,” declared Brendan Rodgers at full-time. “For 75 minutes we were outstanding,” he explained in a typically logical post-match assessment. “We scored three goals, we created many chances, then we conceded with 12 minutes to go and we have to see the game out better than that. You cannot come here against a very good side, be the threat that we were and then defend as we did. It is criminal really.”
The frailties of Liverpool’s back five, evident even when they were destroying teams during a remarkable 11-match winning run, were laid bare just when it seemed that they would once again be masked by more attacking brilliance.
Replays showed that the positioning and decision-making of the visitors for all three of Palace’s goals were calamitous. The consequences were horrific, with substitute Dwight Gayle writing himself into Palace folklore with his deadly pair of side-footed finishes within a few pulsating minutes of one another.
Glen Johnson, a buccaneering asset to the Liverpool attack as they romped into a three-goal lead, was made to look a novice as he showed a startling lack of awareness and resilience for each of the Palace goals. Martin Skrtel, who veers between the very good and the very bad with alarming regularity, and Mamadou Sakho looked like ham actors playing the fool in a 1920s silent movie.
Few could blame Gerrard, who had delivered a midfield masterclass for three-quarters of the match, or Suarez, who pilfered his 31st goal of the season, for their bitter disappointment. Both have expended so much emotional, as well as physical, energy in the bid to end Liverpool’s 24-year title drought.
Only hours earlier, Suarez had learned that he had added the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year award to his PFA gong. The man he beat in second place in the journalists’ poll was his team-mate and club captain.
The individual accolades will be a source of great pride but provide scant consolation as the events of the last nine days sink in.
Liverpool, who are one short of a remarkable century of league goals, have used their attacking strengths to compensate for sloppy defending all season. It has been a delicate balancing act, but one they looked capable of winning. Yet, at the penultimate hurdle, they have fallen short.
“It is 99 goals we have scored, which is a phenomenal achievement by the team – but you have to defend,” said Rodgers. “It is no good scoring all those goals if you defend as we did [last] night.
“There is no doubt. Manchester City will go on and win it. We needed to win to keep the pressure on going into the last game and we did not do that. You have to have that maturity to see it through and we did not do that. It was bitterly disappointing and I would expect Manchester City to go on and win their two home games.”
In this rollercoaster season, a victory for Aston Villa at City on Wednesday night is certainly not out of the question. Paul Lambert’s youthful counter-attacking team are better on the road and have some big scalps to show for it.
Whether or not Liverpool get the kind of assistance Palace gave City to open up the title race again, a more solid base is required at Anfield next season, when Champions League commitments will test a squad that needs considerable beefing up.
Daniel Agger should be sold if Rodgers feels he is too static and leisurely to play a major role, and at least two centre-backs and a full-back recruited to challenge Skrtel, Sakho and Johnson for a regular starting place.
Liverpool’s army of recruitment specialists need to have a better window than last summer, and prove they are as good at spotting defensive talent as they are at finding under-valued strikers and attacking midfielders.
There is a great deal to admire about this Liverpool team. They have provided some wonderful entertainment this season. But every title-winning side needs to have a solid foundation.