Mohamed Salah saves Liverpool after slack defence struggle at Palace
LONDON -- Three thoughts on Crystal Palace 1-2 Liverpool at Selhurst Park in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon.
1. Salah the man again, Mane controversy
Liverpool pulled it out of the fire on a controversial lunchtime at Selhurst Park, and in the process made a giant step toward guaranteeing their place in the top four.
Mohamed Salah's 37th goal of a campaign that defies description gave them a 2-1 win six minutes from time, but Crystal Palace will wonder how on earth Sadio Mane, who equalised after Luka Milivojevic's 12th minute penalty, was not sent off by referee Neil Swarbrick in the second half after one of the clearest second yellow card offences this season will produce.
Palace were within a whisker of opening the scoring eight minutes in. Wilfried Zaha, controlling a long James McArthur pass and holding off Trent Alexander-Arnold, found himself up against Loris Karius, but the goalkeeper stood up superbly and deflected his shot over.
Four minutes later, a similar break brought greater reward. Zaha, running on to Christian Benteke's flick at a slightly wider angle, knocked the ball past Karius but was brought down as the pair met. It was a clear penalty; Karius was booked, and Milivojevic converted his ninth goal -- and seventh penalty -- of the season.
Liverpool controlled possession, but openings were scarce. When Mane appealed for a penalty of his own after turning past McArthur, he was rightly booked for an obvious dive. Just before the half-hour, he was frustrated again when his back-post header was ruled out for offside. By the interval, the visitors were camped in Palace's half, but only another Mane header, tipped away by Wayne Hennessey, really threatened an equaliser.
It had been a forgettable half for Mane, but four minutes after the break, he found his bearings. His finish from James Milner's driven cross was sharp, but from Palace's perspective, all too simple. Liverpool continued to apply pressure; Salah looped a volley wide, but when Palace did attack, they never looked secure.
That was summed up when Benteke missed two golden chances in quick succession, blazing horribly off-target both times after Andros Townsend had twice exposed sloppy defensive play. Mane was then inexplicably not booked again after being penalised for grabbing the ball in search of a free kick, Karius compounding Palace's frustration by saving Patrick van Aanholt's set-piece.
Jurgen Klopp immediately moved to replace Mane with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. It was an end-to-end affair now, but Liverpool's 11 men found a winner. Salah, keeping his composure brilliantly after Andrew Robertson had drilled across goal, applied the finish and left Palace shaking their heads.
2. Klopp still has defensive concerns
The first of Klopp's "finals" passed successfully, but Liverpool will need to be better than this when they face Manchester City in the Champions League on Tuesday. Their defensive issues refuse to go away, and it was, again, a virtuoso piece of work from Salah that meant the focus will lie on a crucial away win rather than a series of glaring mistakes at the back.
Joel Matip replaced Dejan Lovren in central defence here while Alexander-Arnold returned at right-back, with Joe Gomez ruled out by the ankle injury he sustained on England duty. Alexander-Arnold had a torrid start to the game; the 19-year-old is an exceptional prospect but was clearly targeted by Palace, who looked to expose him with early releases to Zaha. It almost paid off even before Benteke, rising far too easily above Matip to head on, set the winger away again, and Palace were ahead before Liverpool had come close to dealing with the threat.
It was eerily similar to the move that brought Marcus Rashford's first goal in the defeat at Old Trafford last month -- in that case a long ball upfield, a Romelu Lukaku flick-on and a Rashford dash beyond Alexander-Arnold -- and added to the sense that Klopp's team do not always learn from their mistakes.
They could be heartened by Nathaniel Clyne's return to the substitutes' bench at Selhurst Park, his first appearance in a squad this season after back surgery, and on this evidence they will hope he gets back up to speed quickly.
After Mane's equaliser, the odds were on Liverpool pushing on to win, but had Benteke converted at least one of his chances, their disorganisation at the back would have been punished further. His second opportunity, in particular, reflected poorly on a dozy Virgil van Dijk, who was beaten easily by Townsend, and the concern for Klopp is that moments like this keep on surfacing regardless of the personnel he selects.
Klopp will also be worried by the fact that Adam Lallana, who came on as a second-half substitute, had to leave the pitch through injury five minutes later. Liverpool needed this win, but they left south London with as many questions as answers.
3. Palace curse Benteke misses
How much will Palace regret those two misses from Benteke? He did not look convincing on either occasion but should have given his side an enormous boost in their bid for safety.
They did not deserve to lose this game and will rightly feel aggrieved that they were not up against 10 men for the final half-hour, but in the end this was, just like last month's 3-2 defeat to Manchester United, a game where they squandered a winning position and Roy Hodgson's side cannot afford many similar instances over the final six games.
The sum for Crystal Palace, when everything is working well, looks fairly simple. Combine a disciplined, well-organised unit with Zaha, and you have a team capable of staying in the Premier League. For long periods, they did to Liverpool what fellow strugglers Swansea achieved at the Liberty Stadium in January, ultimately failing to achieve the same outcome.
Roy Hodgson's side squeezed the space expertly, were happy to cede possession for long periods and knew that when the ball was won, they had a weapon capable of making a difference at the other end. That was what Zaha did in the first half, terrorising Alexander-Arnold early on while his teammates concentrated on bolting the door.
He has the speed and invention to win games on his own, and that is why Palace, who tend to sit very deep in games of this nature, always pose a genuine threat even when their backs are against the wall. It was from their first real moments of danger since Milivojevic's penalty that Benteke spurned those chances.
Three wins from their last six games would probably be enough to keep Palace up, and their run-in -- Liverpool were their final top-six opponents of the season -- offers plenty of hope they will do it, but they will need to be more clinical than this.
For all their good work, results matter far more than performances now.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.