It was a game that encapsulated the unceasing ability of football to amaze. Crystal Palace’s three-goal comeback in the second half of their clash with high-flying Liverpool was entirely unexpected, and it dramatically shifted the title race in Manchester City’s favour.
Despite going top with less than a week until the season’s end, the 3-3 result was enough for Brendan Rodgers to concede defeat in the title race, as reported by BBC Sport. The loss left Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard visibly dejected and star striker Luis Suarez in tears.
In moving 3-0 ahead, the hard work was done, and attention was turning to just how well the Reds could boost their potentially crucial goal difference. That desire to attack, which they have demonstrated all season, was to be their undoing.
So much of the comeback, though, was entirely preventable with a bit more cunning on behalf of the visitors.
Defensive fragility comes home to roost
Liverpool’s defence this season has not been good enough—that much is fair to say. Of those in the top half, only Stoke, Tottenham and Newcastle have conceded more goals than the Reds (49) this season.
If #lfc don't win the league, it'll be because of conceding 3 vs Palace, stoke, Swansea and Cardiff, and 2 vs Fulham and Norwich— Mani Djazmi (@Mani2911) May 5, 2014
Carragher on Sky: "The defensive side of this team is not up to scratch and it's not up to the level of PL champions."— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) May 5, 2014
Palace are not the first bottom-half side to trouble Rodgers' side. Norwich scored twice against them just a fortnight ago. Fulham matched that tally. Swansea and Cardiff each put three past Liverpool. The Anfield side managed to win all of those fixtures, but the warning signs were clear.
Following his former side’s collapse on this occasion, a visibly shell-shocked Jamie Carragher was clear in his damning assessment of the result live on Sky Sports:
That is not acceptable, for all the plaudits Liverpool have had in the last few months - and deservedly so as they have been the most outstanding team in the Premier League to watch and excited us all.
But that has been their Achilles' heel all season. Even when they've been winning games it's been 4-3 or 6-3 or 3-2. We always felt the defence would come back and haunt them with the goals they've conceded.
Tonight's the night, not so much the back four but as a team defensively the goals conceded have come back to haunt them.
Liverpool’s balance, though, has taken them to the top of the league, and it is important to consider whether the attacking nature of the side, if lessened, would have seen them become a less effective overall unit.
What is clear, though, is that the players on the pitch—particularly the back four—could be doing much more to prevent the unnecessary concession of goals.
Naive defensive play allows Palace comeback
When Damien Delaney struck a deflected thunderbolt in the 78th minute to open Palace's account for the night, a comeback was the last thing on any supporter's mind. Liverpool had been the better side by a distance. They were 3-0 up and looking to quickly add to that tally.
Delaney's effort, though, would cue disaster for a Reds side that was suddenly gripped with fear as Place, roared on by a vocal home crowd, raised their intensity.
While entirely preventable, the goal was out of the blue. A short free-kick from Palace opened up space for first Jedinak and then Delaney, as shown below, but right-back Glen Johnson (out of picture, left) should have done a much better job of closing down the eventual scorer.
It was sloppy but not as worrying for Rodgers' side as what was to come.
The goal understandably gave Palace some belief. While the likes of Yannick Bolasie had made some inroads earlier in the game, it was only then that the Eagles truly threatened.
Yannick Bolasie completed 8 take-ons against Liverpool, more than any other player on the pitch tonight. pic.twitter.com/JTXSL2tZoB— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 5, 2014
Liverpool, still focused on improving their goal difference, continued to press. Palace, though, are one of the Premier League's best counter-attacking sides, with pace in abundance in forward areas.
Whether the visitors should have continued searching for goals is open to debate, but fundamental errors allowed Dwight Gayle to score Palace's second goal and completely change the game.
The breakaway began in Palace's own box, and when Bolasie picked up the ball just outside the area, it was already evident that Liverpool were short of numbers. Within touching distance of him, Brazilian Philippe Coutinho should have ensured the attack did not progress any further.
Nobody wants to encourage fouls, but they can be an important part of a defence's armoury. Coutinho should have taken the yellow card and allowed his side to retreat, but he showed inexperience in allowing Bolasie to continue.
That Glen Johnson should show similar inexperience when Bolasie reaches the halfway line is inexcusable for a player of his standing. The Palace winger's pace is well-known, and Johnson should simply retreat and attempt to slow down the attack.
Instead, in moving toward the ball, the England defender opens up the entire half of the pitch behind him as Bolasie breezes past. If he is going to move toward the ball, he has to ensure Bolasie does not progress—one way or another.
With the defence in disarray, the remainder was all so simple. Gayle pulls away from Flanagan in the centre, Bolasie squares, and his teammate calmly side-foots home.
Liverpool panic and the inevitable happens
With Palace back to within touching distance and the momentum entirely in their favour, Liverpool did entirely the wrong thing.
While it is important to focus more on defensive aspects, sitting too deep only attracts trouble, and the Reds were far too often camped well inside their own area.
Rather than make matters look more secure, the defensive line still looked wide open, and Palace's pressure mounted by the minute. Rodgers spoke post-match about the need to manage the game better, and it is easy to see the point he was making.
Rodgers: "For me, it was the management of the football game that cost us tonight. The energy of the players was fine."— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) May 5, 2014
Liverpool needed to be wiser. They needed to take the heat out of the game by ensuring possession of the ball, even if played with no real attacking intent. They needed to slow down the game at every possible opportunity and, most importantly, clear the area when possible. They did none of these basics of defending a lead.
The third goal was simply a matter of time and, once more, came courtesy of poor defensive awareness from Johnson.
The images below show how an entirely preventable goal was handed to Palace on a plate by the England full-back's inability to sense danger.
The images of devastation among Liverpool's players at full time will live long in the memory, and it is hard not to feel sorry for the likes of Suarez and Gerrard.
The duo have been among a handful of attacking players whose contributions have led Liverpool to where they are currently. Too often, though, it has been in spite of woeful defensive performances.
Inexperience played a part. Indeed, the key absence of Jordan Henderson due to suspension can also be put down to naivety, with the England midfielder's rash challenge completely unnecessary in a game that was already won.
Perhaps hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Henderson’s red card against City has turned out to be a huge turning point for Liverpool.— Callum Fox (@cjfox21) May 5, 2014
For the likes of Johnson and Martin Skrtel, though, there can be few such excuses; instead, their ability as defenders will be called into question ahead of what could be a defining summer for the Rodgers era at Anfield.