In a fiery afternoon of football, Liverpool beat Crystal Palace at 1-2 thanks to a colossal display from Virgil van Dijk.
Liverpool had won their last five matches at Selhurst Park, but despite that run of form the spectre of “Crystanbul” still haunted them. That night in 2014 when the Reds went 0-3 up before the hour mark and were running wild as they chased the title on goal difference, only to be pegged back to 3-3 after a remarkable final 15 minutes from Palace.
This was the first time they returned to Selhurst Park in a similar position to 2014 as genuine title challengers (their match here last season was in August, too soon for anything to take shape), and just like then they faced a brutal examination of their character. It was a different test, to be sure, but the atmosphere was much the same. The Palace fans were heated, the Liverpool forwards were mostly a spluttering mess, and things very nearly went quite wrong.
Obviously this afternoon Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino proved to be the match-winners, scoring early and late in the second-half. But those goals were both scrappy as hell and involved generous slices of luck.
Mané’s was deflected off Gary Cahill, saved by Vicente Guaita before hitting both posts and squeaking in despite an attempted clearance. And Firmino’s was a snapshot that came after a corner sailed over the head of an injured-but-toughing-it-out James Tomkins (who had a goal chalked out by VAR for the most innocuous of offences that had nothing to do with the goal itself).
These men scored the goals but the figure who guided Liverpool through the blistering inferno of Selhurst Park was, quite fittingly Virgil van Dijk. This glorious figure who makes defending look like poetry was the one with an arm around the Reds, protecting them from the harshness of Palace whilst also keeping them on the path towards victory.
Because make no mistake: Crystal Palace scored one goal but the reason that number is only one was Van Dijk’s powerful defensive display. The Dutchman was simply everywhere as the Eagles tried and succeeded in overwhelming their illustrious visitors.
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Palace out-shot Liverpool in the first-half 5 to 4 (1 on target to 0) and in the second-half 11 to 8 (5 to 4 on target). They were constantly on the front foot, looking to penetrate and hurt the Reds by exposing the spaces in the wide areas behind their full-backs.
And for the most part, this strategy worked. Liverpool couldn’t keep up with Palace’s energy (understandable given the recent international break) and as a result, whenever Palace drove forward they looked like creating chances. That is to say, they looked like creating chances. They rarely actually did (relative to how often they pushed forward) because Van Dijk was there.
Van Dijk made 10 clearances against Palace, a game-high. He won 62.5% of his eight aerial duels, a number bettered only by team-mate Dejan Lovren who was able to attack crosses so freely because Van Dijk had organised the defence, almost guiding Lovren to be brave in his defensive execution.
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For his part, Van Dijk was phenomenal. The way he read crosses, low crosses in particular, is almost as though he is living in the future and knew where they were heading. He seemed to already know where to stand and was so rarely found struggling or stretching to get the ball away. He kept Palace out time and time again, and even the goal Palace did score involved basically running around him because trying to actually test him resulted in failure. So it finished 1-2, and surely the spectre of “Crystanbul” had been banished
With Liverpool grinding their way to the title rather than blowing teams away with spectacular attacking football, it’s becoming quite clear that their most important player, hell, their best player, is not one of their fabulous front three but instead their titan of a centre-back; the man who guided them through the inferno of Selhurst Park and has them heading for the paradise of the Premier League title. Virgil van Dijk, the best defender in the world.