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Liverpool rely on verve and VAR to stay in title hunt

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Digo Jota just before the collision which resulted in a penalty kick.

Digo Jota just before the collision which resulted in a penalty kick.

Digo Jota just before the collision which resulted in a penalty kick.

It might be premature to speak of a fully reignited Premier League title race but, following Manchester City’s rare slip on Saturday, one familiar challenger is at least still smouldering dangerously beneath the surface.

With this 3-1 win, Liverpool narrowed the gap between them and City to nine points which, with a game in hand and a trip still to the Etihad Stadium, does at least provide a ray of light.

Goals from Virgil van Dijk and Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain had put Liverpool into a seemingly unassailable lead but ultimately sealed victory only following a controversial 89th-minute penalty, a VAR decision that Patrick Vieira branded “naive”.

“That poor decision from the referee took our hope away,” rued the Crystal Palace manager.

For much of the game, though, it was Liverpool’s incisive attacking play, described by manager Jurgen Klopp as some of the best he has seen from his team, which caught the eye. With the midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Curtis Jones assuming control, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson were being granted licence to flow forward in a virtual 2-5-3 formation that initially overwhelmed Palace.

Vicente Guaita had replaced Jack Butland in the Palace goal and was quickly called into action when he turned Henderson’s shot around his right-hand post for a corner.

Robertson stepped up and, with his delivery floated perfectly to the edge of the six-yard box, Van Dijk arrived unchallenged to power his header past Guaita.

Palace had already survived one early warning when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stabbed a chance into the side-netting, but he did not make the same mistake when a second opportunity presented itself from a similar position.

Robertson once again delivered a cross beyond the entire Palace defence and Oxlade-Chamberlain finished with his left foot past Guaita. Palace were aggrieved but a second goal was fully reflective of Liverpool’s dominance. Their possession had topped 75 per cent but, as half-time loomed, defensive frailties also became evident.  

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After just two full days to recover from beating Arsenal in their League Cup semi-final, Klopp suspected that his team were so relieved by their start that they wanted “a break on the pitch”. Joel Matip was especially vulnerable against a rapid and constantly interchanging Palace front three of Michael Olise, Jean-Philippe Mateta and Odsonne Edouard, and having squandered possession to Olise, was only rescued by Alisson’s outstretched leg.

Palace resumed after the interval just as they had ended the first half, with Olise ensuring that Roberston was pinned back. Jeffrey Schlupp’s midfield influence was also growing and he created Palace’s next chance, deftly cushioning his header into the path of Edouard, whose improvised backheel was well saved by Alisson.

A Palace goal felt inevitable and Schlupp then had the composure to pick out Mateta, who was just onside, rather than Edouard, who had drifted offside. Both surged towards Alisson’s goal, with Mateta calmly rolling back to Edouard for a simple finish.

The goal rallied Selhurst Park and, with the stands rocking, Liverpool were forced to withstand an intense period of pressure. Joachim Andersen shot narrowly wide from the edge of the penalty area and Olise forced Alisson to scramble backwards for another important save.

A Palace equaliser was looking more likely than Liverpool’s third but Alexander-Arnold then delivered a wonderful crossfield pass. It had dissected the entire Palace defence to put Diogo Jota behind Joel Ward and, while Liverpool were fortuitous to win a penalty following Guaita’s innocuous challenge, Fabinho calmly sealed an important victory.

“The first 35 minutes was brilliant and some of the best stuff we have played all season. Exactly the way we want to play and if somebody had an explanation for what happened after 35 minutes, I would like it,” said Klopp.

“If we had played the 90 minutes how we started it would have been a tough afternoon for Crystal Palace and it could have been a draw or whatever, so I am over the moon with this result, it was so important for us.” (© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2022)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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