Liverpool must beat Crystal Palace and then they still need some help
Where Liverpool expected, now they merely have to hope. Their fate is not in their own hands. They can accelerate back into the lead in the title race on Monday night, but in the knowledge that Manchester City’s game in hand and superior goal difference gives them an advantage.
Two wins will not suffice for Liverpool, despite nonsensical suggestions that Newcastle could be thrashed 10-0 at Anfield to enable them to pass City.
Rather, they require Aston Villa or West Ham United to take points from Manuel Pellegrini’s team.
First, they face a defensively resolute team from the capital. If it sounds familiar, it is no surprise. Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and company were stymied by one of England’s best-drilled rearguards, Chelsea, last week. Now they encounter another, in Crystal Palace, at Selhurst Park.
It is one of the season’s peculiarities that Palace have conceded fewer goals than Liverpool. Indeed, since Tony Pulis took over in November, their defensive record is 50 per cent better than that of the prospective champions.
With lesser players, the same principles may be employed: a tight, compact back four, shielded by a deep-lying midfield where a central duo take the job description of anchormen seriously and never surface in the Liverpool half, while speedy wingers double up as auxiliary full-backs.
Liverpool’s task is to avert an action replay.
Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, said: “The crime is not losing the game, it’s looking and finding the solutions the next time.
“That’s something we’ve worked hard on and the players have responded brilliantly.”
That is Rodgers, forever looking to learn. He is part teacher, part student. The current lesson involves piercing a hole in a watertight defence.
“That’s the job for me this week – to help the players find the solutions in those types of games,” he said.
“What we’ve shown over the course of the season is that we can play in many different ways – possession or counter-attack our ability to score goals has been there.”
Liverpool have 96 to their name and suggestions they were found out when Chelsea won 2-0 at Anfield are exaggerated.
“It’s clear our methods this season have worked,” Rodgers said.
Nevertheless, they require an illustration of their improvement against an old adversary.
Liverpool never beat Pulis’s Stoke at the Britannia Stadium, although only one of those Liverpool teams challenged at the summit of the league. None had quite the same incentive either.
Title rivals are role models today. Palace were beaten by the individual ability of City’s Yaya Toure last week, while Liverpool’s defeat owed much to a talismanic midfielder, with Steven Gerrard’s slip leading to Demba Ba’s opening goal.
The captain has had a colossal impact this season and, until then, it had been beneficial. His contract expires next summer and, though he will soon be 34, Liverpool are understandably keen to extend it.
“It’s something we will address,” Rodgers said. “I believe Steven will play beyond 2015 and think that he’s going to be a key part of our squad.”
That squad will be bigger next season. “We need that injection of quality,” Rodgers said.
A small core have overachieved, securing their aim for the season – Uefa Champions League football – with games to spare and the lead in the title race.
Now they may end up as nearly men. Yet, until it was abruptly curtailed by Chelsea, their run of 11 successive wins brought superb entertainment.
Then came the deflationary defeat at Anfield. Yet a reunion with Palace proves how far both have come.
The title was not on the agenda when they met in October. Rodgers tended to talk about being “in the conversation” for a top-four place. Raheem Sterling started as a wing-back that day, the only league game he began before December. Now he is among the players of the season.
At Anfield that day Ian Holloway overloaded Palace with attackers. They were beaten before half-time. Liverpool would savour a repeat, but Pulis is rarely as generous.
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Published: May 4, 2014 04:00 AM