A comeback from 3-0 down provided Liverpool’s greatest moment of the past decade when they defeated AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final. A reversal of the events in Istanbul at Selhurst Park on Monday night has now dealt the club what is surely their most devastating.
Liverpool’s title challenge suffered a likely fatal blow in the most extraordinary of circumstances as they conceded three goals in the final 11 minutes to Crystal Palace to throw away a three-goal lead and surely their chances of a first championship in 24 years.
For much of the second half at Selhurst Park, Liverpool had felt able to focus on trying to close the gap on Manchester City’s goal-difference advantage after Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge strikes added to a first-half opener from Joe Allen. But that column could well now be irrelevant come the final day of the season. While scoring goals aplenty throughout the season, there were always doubts about whether their inability to keep them out at the other end would cost them the championship. And that now looks likely to be the case after their weaknesses were explicitly exploited.
With 11 minutes to go Damien Delaney’s deflected strike looked like being a mere frustrating consolation. But just two minutes later, substitute Dwight Gayle added another as Liverpool were caught horribly short on the break. And heading into the final two minutes, Liverpool’s defense crumbled once more when Gayle added a second to thrust a dagger into red hearts.
Just three weeks ago there were tears of joy from Steven Gerrard after a win over Manchester City, but as the final whistle blew on Monday there were agonizing tears of dejection from their and the Premier League’s star man Luis Suarez.
For the time being, Liverpool move back to the top of the table, a point clear of Manchester City. But if City beat Aston Villa on Wednesday and West Ham on the final day there will be nothing Liverpool can do to prevent them lifting the trophy at the Etihad. Realistically, even four points will be enough. No one expected Brendan Rodgers’s side to be title challengers at the start of the season, but there will be no way to put a positive spin on their position to anyone connected to club right now.
Level on points with City with two games to go going into the match, the first target was always to pick up three points. There were some late worries for Rodgers before kickoff, with Philippe Coutinho only deemed fit enough for a place on the bench after suffering a slight injury, while Suarez was unwell but had been included in the starting lineup. Both Suarez and Sturridge, making his first start since a hamstring injury, looked short of their best when failing to seize on early openings.
The match unsurprisingly took up a pattern all-too familiar to Liverpool from their travails in defeat against Chelsea just over a week ago. This time, Liverpool appeared to have more of a concrete plan to deal with a well-drilled, packed defense. It chiefly involved early, direct passes forward, especially involving the constantly attacking Glen Johnson.
The visitors could have had a penalty in the opening 10 minutes when Johnson got in behind Yannick Bolasie and was on the receiving end of a wild kick from the Palace winger as he tried and failed to clear. A repeat of that situation led to Johnson heading over the bar soon after.
The method and source of Liverpool’s opening goal was instead a major surprise. Palace’s usually rock-solid defending from set-pieces had already been exposed when Mamadou Sakho poorly headed wide when unmarked before they went behind in the 18th minute. Allen peeled away to the back post and got free of Joe Ledley with the help of a couple of sly interventions from his teammates before heading in for his first Premier League goal for Liverpool.
Simon Mignolet’s only real work in the opening half was to smartly deny a low effort from Jason Puncheon. At the other end, Liverpool perhaps should have extended their lead. They may well have done had Suarez been fully healthy, but, clearly not at his best, he failed to seize upon several openings. He missed his best chance at the start of the second half when, after Julian Speroni had brilliantly turned Sturridge’s curling effort against the post, the Uruguayan put the rebound over the bar.
Moments later Liverpool’s prolific strike duo was to pounce to seemingly put Liverpool on the road to a comfortable win. First came Sturridge’s goal when his low shot from the edge of the box deflected off Delaney and past Speroni. Two minutes later it was 3-0. Suarez smartly exchanged passes with Raheem Sterling and this time provided his usual assured finish.
At that point Liverpool’s only concern appeared to be how many goals they could get to chip away at City’s goal-difference edge. Initially, it seemed like it might be quite a few, with Palace hanging on for a time.
That pressure soon dissipated, though, and in the 79th minute the match turned in a way that no one could have foreseen. First Delaney was allowed too much space to fire a shot from distance that took a deflection off of Johnson and sent it flying past Mignolet. Rather than continuing to go forward, Liverpool will doubtless be reflecting now that they should have simply held what they had.
Instead they were instantly caught woefully undermanned on the break from their own corner. Bolaise deserves huge praise for his part in the goal as he soared forward from inside his own half, breezing past Johnson with ease before laying the ball square for Gayle to expertly direct past Mignolet.
Liverpool’s heads had now clearly gone and their defending became increasingly deep and edgy. Sure enough in the 88th minute they succumbed to a most painful equalizer. Substitute Glenn Murray flicked the ball on and, with Martin Skrtel and Sakho caught in no-man’s land, Gayle again was unerring with his finish. Incredibly, there could still have been another late twist, but Victor Moses, the man on loan from Chelsea -- now implausibly still in the title race -- missed his kick with the goal gaping.