Pressure on title hopefuls Liverpool to defeat in-form Crystal Palace
MAY 05, 2014 8:21a ET
And then there were two. With Chelsea's meek draw against Norwich at Stamford Bridge, the Premier League title chase is effectively down to Liverpool and Manchester City, and a one-week sprint will then decide which club wears the crown.
First, Liverpool must defeat Crystal Palace tonight here at Selhurst Park if they are to keep pace with a City side that edged Everton 3-2 at the weekend. Should they fail, they will open the door slightly for Chelsea - and give City a chance to put one hand on the trophy Wednesday night at the Etihad.
Last week, you would have penciled this date in as the coronation: Liverpool, powering through opponents like a scythe, looked to wrap it all up in Croydon, with the tiny Eagles as the extras in the play. The vaunted 'SAS' combination of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have been taking no prisoners, and the emergence of both Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho as playmakers of the first order have made the Reds one of the league's highest-scoring teams.
And, they slipped, in a fashion that will long be remembered for its irony. Captain and talisman Steven Gerrard, reborn as a deep-lying shield this season under Brendan Rodgers, allowed a ball to creep under his foot against Chelsea. Demba Ba was on to it, Gerrard desperatley tried to get back but the ball was swiftly through keeper Simon Mignolet's legs and into the back of the net. Gerrard did not recover from that blow, playing out the remainder of the match in a fog. Chelsea won out 2-0, and suddenly the title was out of Liverpool's hands and into Manchester City's. If City win out, there is little the Reds can do about it.
Monday night will see if Gerrard and his teammates have exorcised that loss, or whether that will become a desperate blot on what has otherwise been a fantastic season. But do not count out Crystal Palace. They know they were supposed to be the mugs here, and you can bet their tough-as-nails gaffer Tony Pulis has spent the week reminding every single one of them that fact.
Now, Palace have played Liverpool so infrequently over the years - this August will mark the first time the Eagles have played in the Prem in successive seasons, after all - that it's a bit pointless to point to past history. Liverpool beat this same side 3-1 back in October -- but that was before Pulis took over, and the Eagles' return from the dead. Since manager Ian Holloway resigned, Palace have racked up 39 points and Pulis is our manager of the year for that very reclamation act. Then there's the curious fact that Pulis has never lost at home to the Reds, with any team. And, Palace have beaten Liverpool the last two times they faced them at Selhurst Park, albeit back in 2005. Now, if you really think that means Palace have a lock on this game, well, then by all means head to your bookie - but I wouldn't put the house on it. The fact is, Palace has beaten only one top-four side this year, and that camein in a London derby against Chelsea.
In fact, this game has the whiff of a draw all over it. Liverpool know they need to score goals and take full points. Their problem is that while they are good at the former, they make mistakes at the back. Palace are hardly offensive geniuses, but Jason Puncheon and Marouane Chamakh have emerged as unlikely heroes here, and they have won five of their last six matches. They also learned a painful lesson last week when they tried to play Manchester City straight up - and were out of the game inside the fourth minute. Pulis will not make the same mistake twice, and will look to kill time from the whistle to dent Liverpoolâs famous opening blitz.
Jordan Henderson is out for tonight's game as he serves the last match of a three-game ban; he is the only player of note out. Both managers are expected to name unchanged teams otherwise - Rodgers and Pulis both prize continuity - and you can expect Liverpool to have a lot of the ball. Palace is not a possession team, and they will likely be set up to frustrate, with two banks of four in front of Julian Speroni. It is a tactic that Chelsea used to great effect last week against the Reds - but Palace are not Chelsea.
Should Liverpool win, the pressure goes back onto Manchester City, who play Aston Villa Wednesday night at the Etihad in their makeup game. And then, should City win, well, it will all come down to Sunday afternoon - and who blinks first.