By Séamus Leonard
After nine months of an extraordinary Premier League season, there are just four games left to be played to decide which club will finish top of the pile in England.
Chelsea threw a massive spanner in the works with its 2-0 win at Anfield last Sunday. That result put the fate of the title back in the hands of Manchester City, and Manuel Pellegrini’s charges have taken full advantage by beating Crystal Palace (last Sunday) and Everton.
The victory at Goodison Park on Saturday moved City to the top on goal difference, with the Mancunians nine goals better off on that front than Liverpool. Normally, that wide a gap would be deemed insurmountable in just two games, but the Reds have made such an art form of racking up goals this season that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could dish out two hidings between now and the end of the campaign.
A lot has been made of the fact that City will host Aston Villa and West Ham in its last two games, and that those sides have nothing tangible left to play for having both avoided relegation. But the same can be said of both Palace and Newcastle United, the two sides Liverpool remains to play.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is not a man who places much weight on the power of ‘mind games’, though you do get the feeling he was trying to unnerve the blue half of Manchester when he said that City will struggle to win its final two fixtures.
For Liverpool, however, the most important thing is to ensure that it collects three points at Selhurst Park on Monday night. The nice thing for the Reds is that they have developed into quick starters, and so there is no need for them to approach this game any differently than they did in the defeat to Chelsea, or the 11 consecutive wins prior to that encounter.
Should Liverpool manage to score one or even two early goals, then and only then should thoughts turn to how best to narrow the goal difference deficit.
Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson is still suspended following his dismissal against City a few weeks back, but striker Daniel Sturridge could be fit to start after his recent hamstring problems.
The England international came off the bench for the last half hour against Chelsea, but he was clearly far from 100% fit. If the intervening days have helped sufficiently in terms of recovery, Sturridge’s ability to stretch a defense could be pivotal against a well-drilled Palace outfit.
With goals on the agenda, Rodgers is unlikely to start both Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen. The latter played the fill 90 minutes at Anfield last Sunday and so is likely to keep his starting spot.
It was an unfortunate slip from Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard that lead to Demba Ba putting Chelsea in front last weekend, and the Reds’ skipper spent the rest of the game trying to atone for his error.
In many ways, Gerrard was trying too hard. Hopefully Rodgers has had a word with the Huyton native, and that the midfielder will trust his team mates enough to let them carry some of the burden in London.
Rodgers’ modus operandi of taking one game at a time has served his side well, and it has never been more important than now. Any kind of win at Selhurst Park will put Liverpool back on top of the table, and the pressure then shifts to Man City to beat Aston Villa on Wednesday night.
The Citizens may be made up of expensive international stars, but they fell over the line to win the title in 2011/12 and they were humbled by Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup final last season. So there is still more than a good chance that they will have another wobble. Liverpool needs to ensure it is in a position to capitalize in that event.
Crystal Palace v Liverpool
When: Monday, May 5, 1500 EST/2000 BST
Where: Selhurst Park, London
Previous Premier League match: Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea, Crystal Palace 0-2 Manchester City
League Position 2013-14: Crystal Palace 11th (43 points), Liverpool 2nd (80 points)
Projected Crystal Palace Starting 11
DEF: Mariappa, Dann, Delaney, Ward
MID: Puncheon, Dikgacoi, Jedinak, Ledley, Bolasie
Subs from: Hennessey, Alexander, Parr, Moxey, McCarthy, O’Keefe, Ince, Chamakh, Murray, Gayle, Bannan, Guedioura, Thomas
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Flanagan, Skrtel, Sakho, Flanagan
MID: Gerrard, Allen, Coutinho
FW: Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling
Subs from: Jones, Agger, Cissokho, Toure, Kelly, Lucas, Luis Alberto, Teixeira, Moses, Aspas
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard