Late win at Palace a turning point for Liverpool's Christian Benteke?
It has almost been overlooked amid all the controversy about how they achieved it, but Liverpool pulled off quite the comeback on Sunday to beat Crystal Palace. Having so often this season failed to build on an impressive win, there was a sense of inevitability about the situation in which the Reds found themselves late in the second half at Selhurst Park. Trailing to a scrappy goal from a set-piece and a man down due to James Milner's recklessness, supporters were entitled to wonder if their side had once again blown a great chance to go on the kind of run needed to climb the table.
Liverpool are so far off the pace this year because they just haven't been able to get any kind of momentum going, too often following up their best performances with some of their worst. It looked to be happening again on Sunday but then Palace goalkeeper Alex McCarthy -- who had not even made a save of note to that point -- slipped while making a clearance and the game turned completely on its head.
Roberto Firmino drew the 10 men level and after that, there only ever looked like being one winner. The decisive goal did not come until the last minute of the game when substitute Christian Benteke won and converted a controversial penalty to steal victory from the jaws of defeat for Jurgen Klopp's side.
Social media and sports radio went into meltdown with Benteke the subject of much ire, but the incident really doesn't warrant this much scrutiny. In truth, it was actually a straightforward call for the officials. The defender slid in but didn't get anywhere near the ball and his knee hit the standing foot of a striker running at full speed.
Only Benteke himself knows if that was truly enough contact to knock him down or if he just went to ground looking for a penalty. That isn't for the officials to determine; all they can do is assess whether the defender made contact with man and not ball, and the eagle eyed linesman correctly spotted that Damien Delaney caught Benteke's standing foot. An open and shut case under the letter of the law but that hasn't stopped supporters, pundits and former players from weighing in on the issue.
Palace obviously aren't happy but it's nonsense to suggest (as both Delaney and Alan Pardew have) that the officials should judge the situation differently because it happened at the end of the game. First minute or last, the officials can't let that influence their decision. That would be as ridiculous as the notion of not punishing a yellow card offence because the player concerned is a nice guy.
Even after numerous replays from different camera angles, the debate raged on. While we can completely disregard the views of Pardew and Klopp who are both biased in favour of their own player, it was interesting to see the differences in opinion from many neutral observers, including some ex-professionals.
Two of the most high-profile pundits in the English media, Gary Lineker and Stan Collymore, hold completely differing views. For Lineker it was an obvious penalty, but to Collymore -- always outspoken on the issue of players going to ground too easily -- it was clearly a case of Benteke taking a dive.
Controversy aside, it was a big moment for Benteke and he will be hoping it proves to be a turning point in his Anfield career. His struggles since the turn of the year are well documented. Things hadn't gone well for him even before 2016 began, but at least he made some meaningful contributions earlier in the campaign -- even now he's still the club's top goalscorer this season. The last few months have been a nightmare but there are signs that he might be snapping out of that funk.
Klopp was fulsome in his praise of the striker's performance when coming off the bench in the 3-0 win over Manchester City last week, and also spoke of how impressive the Belgian had been in recent training sessions. Actions speak louder than words, though, so it was significant therefore that it was Benteke -- not Daniel Sturridge -- who Klopp summoned from the bench when he needed to find a winning goal. Quite the vote of confidence.
Benteke was lively from the moment he stepped onto the field and all the criticism he's received over the penalty incident will not concern him in the slightest. He won his side three points and that's all Benteke, or anybody connected to Liverpool, will care about. The debate over whether he dived or conned the officials may rage on but the Reds will be privately buzzing about a third straight league win. They'll also be encouraged that the £32.5 million man is finally showing some signs of adapting to Klopp's methods.
It's far too early to talk about corners being turned -- Benteke still has an awful lot to do if he's to win over supporters and convince Klopp he should be part of his plans next year -- but at least he's willing to fight for his Anfield future and hasn't just accepted the fate most are predicting.