Liverpool withstand tough test at Crystal Palace, confirm status as title challengers

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LONDON — Three quick thoughts from Liverpool’s 1-0 Premier League win over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Monday.

1. Liverpool withstand tough test at Palace

The Premier League needs a strong Liverpool this season. We’re only two games in, but Manchester City seem to have improved since last term, absurdly, while the other main challengers are either in flux or have significant points of weakness. If there’s to be any sort of title race, Liverpool have to be at it from the start.

And it looks like they are. This 2-0 win over Crystal Palace was not their finest performance, but they coped with pretty much everything a tough Eagles side threw at them and came out the other side with three points.

Goals from James Milner and Sadio Mane were enough, while performances from new boys Naby Keita and Alisson Becker combined to suggest this will be a fun 10 months ahead on Merseyside.

The game took a while to heat up, but in the space of a few minutes, one brilliant play on each side got things going. First Keita found himself in trouble in Liverpool’s left-back position but produced a magnificent Cruyff turn to skip away from it, then pinged a remarkable long pass over the top to Mohamed Salah. Last season’s goal machine uncharacteristically spoiled things by lobbing over the bar. Then for Palace, Andros Townsend hit the bar with a flamboyantly dipping shot from around 30 yards out.

Seconds before half-time, Liverpool took the lead. Salah went down in a crowded area with a couple of Palace defenders in close attendance but seemed to stumble rather than be fouled. But it was enough for referee Michael Oliver to give the penalty, which Milner converted. That makes it the 47th Premier League game in which Milner has scored; remarkably, his team haven’t lost any of those games.

Palace pressed Liverpool hard in the second half, making sure Alisson was well tested. Liverpool reportedly spent some of training this week roughing up the Brazilian in preparation for a physical night, and it paid off. He dealt with everything that came his way like he’d been there for years.

As Palace attacked, the visitors had to rely on counter-attacks, and it was from one of them that Liverpool’s grip on the game tightened. Salah was sent dashing through only for Aaron Wan-Bissaka — who to that point had arguably been the best player on the pitch — to clip his heels just outside the area. It was clumsy rather than malicious, but the red card was inevitable.

Palace kept going after that, but the points were sealed in injury time, as Liverpool cleared a corner and sent Mane streaking up the pitch, and he kept his balance to round the keeper and slot home.

2. Keita fulfilling his massive potential

Keita might not have thanked Liverpool for securing his transfer so early. It was in August 2017 that an agreement was reached with RB Leipzig to take the Guinean midfielder to Anfield this summer, meaning anticipation has been building for a full year.

But on the early evidence, we should believe the hype.

Keita was outstanding at the heart of Liverpool’s midfield, the box-to-box player who is always thrilling to watch, equally good in attack or defence, with a delicate touch to match his physical gifts.

The turn and pass from his own half that almost brought a goal from Salah was an extraordinary piece of football, at once displaying remarkable levels of creativity, quick thinking and technique. It looked so simple, but it was something only a handful of players would have even thought of. The best make the hardest things seem easy, and that’s what Keita did.

You know a player is good when their own manager is reluctant to build them up too much. When asked about Keita this week, Jurgen Klopp tried to direct praise to Milner — who was terrific again here — rather than create more expectation around his new midfielder.

That won’t work for long. Keita is made for this Liverpool side; watching him this season is going to be incredibly enjoyable.

3. Wan-Bissaka may be the next brilliant English talent

It was all going so well for Wan-Bissaka. But really, one moment of clumsiness shouldn’t detract from what was another piece of evidence that Gareth Southgate, watching from the stands, might have another brilliant young talent waiting for a call-up to the England team.

Wan-Bissaka made his first-team debut for Palace only in February, thrown in under emergency circumstances against Tottenham. He didn’t look out of place then, and he certainly doesn’t look out of place now. In fact, Keita aside, he was probably the most impressive player on the pitch.

There’s an assurance to Wan-Bissaka’s play that you really don’t expect from a 20-year-old with a handful of appearances to his name. It should tell you plenty that, for most of the game, he had Mane broadly under control. Much more experienced defenders couldn’t say that.

He seems to move like a middle-distance runner, all skinny limbs and smooth movements, travelling at speed without ever really looking like he’s sprinting.

There are still elements of his game to work on, of course — notably his positioning — but for the moment, he gets away with it because of his remarkable powers of recovery. On a couple of occasions, he produced remarkable saving challenges and was a whisker away from making another when Salah was clean through.

But make no mistake, this might well be the start of a brilliant career.

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