SELHURST PARK, LONDON — They came simply to win, then they came to run up the score, then they paid the price for that arrogance.
On 55 minutes, when Luis Suarez slid home his 31st goal of the season to give his side a 3-0 lead, it looked like Liverpool would go into the final game of the season with a genuine possibility—if still less than a 50-50 proposition—of lifting a first Premier League title in 24 years.
Just over a half-an-hour later, however, they were shell-shocked, facing the desperate prospect of conceding a fourth goal that would effectively hand Manchester City the chance to seal the title against Aston Villa on Wednesday.
“We go top tonight, with 81 points and one week to go in the season,” Rodgers would say less than an hour later. “And we’re sat talking here, and we're devastated.”
When Palace's Damien Delaney—a central defender who usually puts the “agri” in “agricultural”—shaped to shoot from 30 yards with barely 10 minutes remaining, there was little clue of what was to come. But the Republic of Ireland international found the top corner with his swinging left foot and the help of a slight deflection, and suddenly Selhurst Park was in business.
Two minutes later the ground was rocking, as substitute Dwight Gayle sliced home after glorious work down the left flank from the twinkle-toed Yannick Bolasie.
Now the Palace faithful sensed the unthinkable was possible. Suddenly Liverpool were tasting their own medicine—this was Istanbul all over again.
"When [Delaney scored], I thought we’d have a squeak," Palace manager Tony Pulis said afterwards. "I said to Keith [Millen, his assistant] 'We might have a sniff here. And then the support took off, it was amazing.
"When the second goal went in it was just a matter of time. I really thought that."
When Suarez found Julian Speroni’s near post before the hour mark, the atmosphere was all so different. Daniel Sturridge had scored a deflected strike moments earlier in front of the watching England manager Roy Hodgson, and after each goal the two strikers had gestured to their team-mates to recover the ball from the net and go again.
Suddenly it was not just the three points being sought but improving a goal difference that began the evening nine worse than Man City. Win and score a hatful, and Liverpool could theoretically claim the title regardless of City's results with another big win next weekend.
It was both an understandable approach and an antagonistic one; the Palace players, with nothing tangible to play for and safety long since secured, suddenly had pride and honour to reclaim.
Only 3-2 up with nine minutes to play, Liverpool nevertheless continued to pour forward, a risky decision considering that momentum and everything inside SE25 seemed to be driving against them like a tidal wave.
Soon enough the dam burst, Glenn Murray’s brilliant lay-off for the buoyant Gayle seeing the substitute slip the ball through Simon Mignolet’s legs for an equaliser which those inside the ground could scarcely believe.
The subsequent roar could probably be heard on Merseyside, for those fans who did not make the trip to South London (2,600 did, with many more ticketless unfortunates wandering around the vicinity).
“Murray takes the pressure off him a little bit, and he finds those gaps,” Pulis said of Gayle. “The two goals were fabulous.”
Both sides threw caution to the wind, for entirely different reasons. Palace sought their “And Collymore’s closing in…!” moment to cap off a remarkable evening’s football and a brilliant campaign; Liverpool just wanted to keep their title hopes as healthy as possible.
After a few scares, mostly in the Palace defence, the final whistle blew. Unlike Istanbul nine years ago there was no extra time and penalties, but Liverpool’s players were left every bit as dejected as their AC Milan opponents had been that night.
Suarez, on the night he equalled Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Shearer’s record for goals in a 38-game campaign, sobbed on the pitch as his team-mates trudged off disconsolately.
Was that it for the dreams of a first title in 24 years?
“Yes. For me it is, yes,” Rodgers said convincingly, before adding:
For 78 minutes we were outstanding, getting three goals and thinking we could get one or two more. But I think we got carried away and lost our defensive structure.
We said at half-time that the most important thing is to win the game. In the first half we lost our shape again and thought we could play ‘Roy of the Rovers football.’ We stabilised that at half-time and got two quick goals, which put us in total control.
We just didn’t manage the game then, and they’ve got some good players who can punish you. It’s something we’ll improve upon for next season. Very disappointing to only gain a point from a game we totally controlled.
In the opposing dressing room, Pulis had been insisting to his side, 1-0 down to Joe Allen’s early header, that they still had a chance:
I just said, get through the first 10 minutes of the second half and the game will open up. And if it does we will have a chance.
Then they get two goals, and at 3-0 you are staring down the barrel.
They played very open, and they are quite happy to play well because they have the best forwards in the league.
Palace were supposed to have nothing to play for, Liverpool with every incentive to win. With top-flight security long since clinched, Palace’s final home game of the season was a barely concealed celebration.
The cheerleaders and parading eagle that have been a fixture at Selhurst Park all season never felt so apt. Ninety minutes later, that was even more true.
"It’s been a remarkable season for the club in lots of respects," Pulis told reporters. "It looks like we are going to finish 11th; the players deserve so much credit for their attitude and application. I’m really delighted for them—and the supporters."
This felt like a high point for a side that may never have it this good again, a devastating undoing of another side whose unexpected overachievement had led fans to believe not just that the unthinkable could happen, but that it would.
Palace might wonder exactly where they go from here. Pulis still refuses to confirm he will be at the club next season, while it is eminently possible at least three players influential in their campaign—Cameron Jerome, Julian Speroni and Marouane Chamakh—will not return next term.
With rival sides unlikely to provide their own undoing in so many spectacular ways (mostly through poor managerial appointments and changes), next season might prove even tougher at the other end of the table.
Like Palace, impartial observers may wonder whether the Reds can match the achievements of this season again next term, when Chelsea will (presumably) have a striker they can rely on, Manchester City will have strengthened further, Arsenal will expect further improvement and Manchester United will demand it.
Rodgers has already spoken of his desire to add as many as five new players, as much to cope with the additional demands of the Champions League as to strengthen the first XI, but will Suarez produce another season of such brilliance? Will Steven Gerrard, 33, avoid the sort of subtle decline that generally occurs at his age?
Will a defence that has conceded five goals in two games against Chelsea and Palace, sides that came to defend, ever be good enough to top the table?
“We’ve made great strides this year,” he said. “While I’m here, I’m here to win titles, and I’ll be relentless in that quest. That’s why I came.
“I’ve seen a lot of improvements this season. We’re trying to build something here, and this season has shown we are going to be capable of doing that. But of course every season in the Premier League is hard.”
One point clear with one game remaining, it is a measure of how far Liverpool have progressed in 12 months that last year’s seventh-placed squad left the pitch almost inconsolable at the result.
Gerrard’s slip to hand the Blues the three points at Anfield eight days ago may not yet be the defining memory of this run-in. Pulis, for one, thinks more twists could yet come.
“That’s football. It’s been the Premier League this year,” he warned. “Don’t write Liverpool off just now, the way the season has been.”
“It can happen,” Rodgers concluded, seemingly trying to convince himself as much as anyone else the title was still a possibility, just moments after he had written it off. “Aston Villa are a good counter-attacking side.
“These last few hurdles, no matter how you clear the other ones, these are difficult hurdles.”
He now knows that only too well.
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