Liverpool labour before Salah kills Palace with deadly touch
Such is the quality of Mohamed Salah, and such is the fear he inspires, there was an air of ominous inevitability about this match-winning intervention even as his team-mates struggled and scrapped around him.
To be clear, this was a long way from vintage Liverpool, who found the going tough against a Crystal Palace brimming with energy and speed. But with Salah finishing like this, Jurgen Klopp’s side hardly need to play well to win.
Anfield’s “Egyptian King”, as ever, needed just one clear opening to make the difference. It arrived with the match in the balance, six minutes remaining. He took one touch to kill the ball, and another to kill the game.
“That makes him a proper striker,” Klopp said. “If you only score when you have a perfect day, you can’t score in all the games he has. Outstanding.”
It was Salah’s 37th goal of the season, and his 29th in the Premier League. It was also the 21st league game in which he had scored, equalling the record for an entire season that was previously shared between Cristiano Ronaldo and Robin van Persie.
The late strike, added to Sadio Mane’s second-half equaliser, sent Liverpool 10 points clear of fifth-placed Chelsea in the hunt for Champions League qualification. There will, however, be questions asked of their defence, which again looked vulnerable ahead of their European meeting with Manchester City this week, and of the officials, who failed to show Mane a second yellow card for a deliberate handball in the second half.
There will be a post-match inquest for Palace, too, and particularly for Christian Benteke, who spurned two of the clearest chances he could have hoped to get against his former side.
Roy Hodgson, the Palace manager, was quick to praise Benteke’s all-round performance, but he will know as well as anyone that the Belgian’s abysmal return of just two goals all season is a major factor behind the side’s inability to push up the table.
“When you are a forward and you have not scored for a while, and then you miss a couple of chances, that is all people want to talk about,” Hodgson said. “I judge him by different values.”
Thankfully for Palace and Benteke, they have a favourable run-in and there was more than enough positivity here for the home fans to feel comfortable about the club’s Premier League future.
Wilfried Zaha, for example, was unplayable at times. Andros Townsend provided industry on the right, and the return of Ruben Loftus-Cheek can only be good news for a side lacking in guile. Palace, in short, should be fine.
“Our possession was good, our movement, our ability to ask questions of Liverpool’s defence,” Hodgson said. “So it was a bitter blow to concede the second goal as we did. A point was the minimum we could have accepted.”
They started the game energetically, and Zaha had already blown a hole in the visitors’ back line before he blitzed past Trent Alexander-Arnold and was clattered by goalkeeper Loris Karius. There was no doubt about the penalty decision, and it was no surprise to see Luka Milivojevic subsequently lash the ball into the bottom corner of the net.
It was the fourth penalty Zaha has earned this season – no player has won more – and third spot-kick Milivojevic has scored in six games.
With Benteke dominant in the air and Zaha so sharp across the floor, Liverpool looked wobbly. There were still chances, though, with Salah testing Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey and Mane diverting a corner inches wide.
Mane had the ball in the net before the break but was rightly flagged offside, while he was also booked for diving after a delayed and dramatic fall following a challenge from James McArthur. “There was no dive,” Klopp said. “Diving is without contact and there was contact, 100 per cent.”
After the break, Liverpool found the equaliser through Mane, tapping home from a low James Milner cross. For a moment, it seemed that might herald a period of Liverpool dominance, but this was far too disjointed and frantic an afternoon for either side to take sustained control.
As Palace continued to press, their opponents allowed Benteke two clear opportunities in the space of a minute. He skewed both efforts off target.
Liverpool were then lucky that Mane, whose afternoon was veering between brilliance and buffoonery, was not dismissed for picking up the ball when he thought he had been fouled. Neil Swarbrick, the referee, awarded Palace a free-kick but declined to show Mane a second yellow.
Klopp was less generous, instantly replacing Mane with playmaker Adam Lallana. To his chagrin, and to the worry of anyone with interest in England’s World Cup hopes, Lallana soon hobbled off nursing what appeared to be a hamstring problem.
Klopp admitted the injury looked “absolutely bad”, especially as Lallana has already missed so much football this season. “Maybe one of the biggest achievements of our team is that they could play a season like they have played without Adam.”
Back on the field, Salah was waiting for his moment to grab the headlines.
A deep cross from Alex OxladeChamberlain, on as a substitute, found Andy Robertson at the back post. The Scotland full-back found Salah in the six-yard box, and Salah simply did what Salah always does.
Business as usual: Mohamed Salah celebrates his 37th goal of the season