Liverpool's dreams tossed and blown by Gayle: players distraught on the pitch after letting slip three-goal lead over Crystal Palace
It will at least go to the last day of the season on Sunday, but a glance back over their shoulder will tell Liverpool that Selhurst Park was where the dream died and it will be no consolation that their Premier League title ambitions hit the wall in such a brilliant game.
They might still win it - there is even an unlikely scenario where Chelsea could - but the reality is that Manchester City need only a win and a draw in their final two games to finish as champions, starting with the game against Aston Villa on Wednesday. Could Manuel Pellegrini’s team lose their nerve? Perhaps, but it felt like the season’s spectacular choke was this one, when Liverpool blew a 3-0 lead.
It was a ten minute spell in the closing stages of the game when Brendan Rodgers’ team conceded three goals as they attempted to chase down the nine goal advantage that City hold over them in the goal difference stakes. They could have sat on their lead at 3-0 and closed the game out. They should have done that as first Damien Delaney and then the substitute Dwight Gayle reduced the margin of their lead.
At the end of a long, hard season this was a game that took a while to heat up but it ended up as a classic between two of the division’s over-achievers. Palace may not overhaul Stoke City to get tenth place but the atmosphere of Selhurst Park was raucous and there was joy too at how comfortable their new manager has made the end to the season.
The home fans were here to celebrate, but they also wanted a performance from their team and they got one. Liverpool were made to work hard for their first goal and can count themselves rather fortunate that Mark Clattenburg did not spot the surreptitious foul that was key to it all.
That was Lucas Leiva’s tug at Joe Ledley as he ran to the back-post to track the run of Joe Allen at Steven Gerrard’s corner on 17 minutes. Allen was unmarked when the ball fell to him behind the pack of players in the centre of the six-yard box and he was able to guide his header between the bodies on the line.
It was the first goal from a set-piece that Palace have conceded in the Pulis era, and what an era it has been. Pulis will have been tutting at the carelessness that allowed Mamadou Sakho another free header minutes earlier, when the French defender directed his attempt on goal downwards with such force that the ball bounced over. Second time around, Lucas’ foul on Ledley happened so quickly that Clattenburg had precious little chance of detecting it.
But Rodgers’ team did not have it all their own way and Simon Mignolet made a fine save from a shot from the Palace captain Mile Jedinak on 34 minutes. The sharpness and power of the Palace midfield caught Liverpool and Gerrard by surprise at times although, in the first half, it was always the away team that looked more dangerous.
If Suarez had been sharper there would have been more. He did not look his usual self, putting Allen under pressure and forcing him into a judicious foul on Marouane Chamakh that earned the midfielder a booking on 24 minutes. Suarez was falling back later when he lifted a cut-back from Raheem Sterling on the right over the bar.
There was one more opportunity, three minutes from the break when a lovely sweeping move orchestrated by Gerrard and Allen allowed Suarez to double back and shoot at Julian Speroni’s near post.
In fact it was just starting to look like Suarez’s temper was close to blowing when finally Liverpool scored twice in a couple of minutes, the second of which came from their No 7. Before then he had been booked for what might have been simulation when he ran into Scott Dann, or could have been dissent as he demanded action from Clattenburg.
A few minutes later Suarez could not control his shot when Speroni brilliantly pushed a curling left-foot shot from Sturridge onto the post. The Argentine goalkeeper was excellent all night but he could do nothing about Liverpool’s second goal. First the long ball from Gerrard with enough slice and flight to take it straight to the feet of Sturridge. He ran across the face of the box and hit a left foot shot that flicked off Delaney and in.
Within two minutes Sterling and Suarez had exchanged passed in the Palace area and the latter had dispatched the ball past Speroni. Suarez became the second man in Premier League history to score 31 goals in a 38-game season. Finally Liverpool had some momentum and it was then they tried to chase down City’s goal difference advantage.
In the end it became so open, and Liverpool so stretched, that it was Palace who took advantage. First Rodgers’ team lost concentration after a substitution, when Philippe Coutinho came on for Sterling. The ball was worked left to the defender Delaney and his shot took a hefty deflection off Glen Johnson and past Mignolet.
Then a fantastic break from Yannick Bolasie who seemed not to be tired at all when he left Johnson as stationary as a training cone on his way down the Palace left. Bolasie was a blur of activity but was composed enough to cross for Gayle for the second. The third came when Glenn Murray, another substitute, directed the ball with his chest into the path of Gayle who slipped it past Mignolet. It was a crushing blow for Liverpool from which they will struggle to recover this season.
Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Speroni; Ward, Delaney, Dann, Mariappa; Puncheon (Gayle 64), Jedinak, Ledley, Dikgacoi (Ince 84), Bolasie; Chamakh (Murray 70).
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Flanagan; Allen, Gerrard, Lucas; Sterling (Coutinho 78), Sturridge (Moses 86), Suarez.
Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne and Wear)
Man of the match: Jedinak
Belfast Telegraph Digital