Palace are Liverpool's Kryptonite, but there are encouraging signs for Klopp
This weekend, as a place in the Champions League beckons, Liverpool face a team whose very name can bring a shudder of anxiety to the most stoic of their supporters: Crystal Palace are coming to town.
Last season, Palace inflicted the first defeat of Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool career at Anfield. The season before that, they ruined Steven Gerrard's farewell party, beating the Reds 3-1 in their own home. And then, of course, there was "Crystanbul," the miraculous comeback in 2014 that saw Brendan Rodgers' side squander a 3-0 lead at Selhurst Park and kiss goodbye any lingering hope that they might finally win the league.
Palace are Kryptonite to Liverpool and with so much at stake, they are the last team that the Anfield crowd will want to see right now. And yet, there are encouraging signs that the darkest days of the season may now be just a memory.
Liverpool have certainly packed a lot into this campaign. In the first third of the season, a surprising defeat away at Burnley notwithstanding, they looked like genuine title contenders. They beat Arsenal at the Emirates, hammered champions Leicester at Anfield, took 30 points from a possible 39 and made their supporters believe that anything was possible.
And indeed, anything was possible. Including a cataclysmic loss of form in the New Year that destroyed any chance of an end to what will now be at least a 28-year title drought. Without Sadio Mane, on duty at the African Nations Cup, they were half the attacking force. As confidence plummeted in the dressing room, they weren't even half the defensive force. The indignities soon piled up. Liverpool couldn't beat Sunderland. They lost at home to Swansea. They lost away to Hull. And by the end of February, the question wasn't whether or not they would be champions, it was whether or not they would even make the Champions League.
There is still no guarantee that they will, but at least results have finally started to improve. Since losing to Leicester at the end of February, Liverpool have won five and drawn two of their past seven games. They have reasserted what we always knew to be true: that they can cause serious problems to the strongest teams, beating Arsenal and holding Manchester City to a creditable draw. But in the last fortnight, they have started to demonstrate something we haven't seen in a while: that they can beat the weaker teams, too.
In 12 matches against their fellow members of the top seven, Liverpool have picked up 26 points, or an average of 2.16 per game. In their 21 games against the rest of the league, Liverpool have 37 points, or an average of 1.76 per game. In short, Liverpool are almost half a point better against the best teams in the division, a statistic that offers as much hope as it does frustration.
But Liverpool's past two games have offered encouragement. Trailing away at an out-of-form Stoke, they fought back to win 2-1. Facing a West Bromwich Albion side that excelled at set pieces, with their own frailties in that department well known, Liverpool won 1-0, with a goal from a cleverly worked free kick. In both matches, the performance of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was critical.
Crystal Palace, however, are in better form than Stoke and West Brom. They are fighting for their Premier League lives and, though the gap between them and the relegation zone has widened to seven points, they're not safe yet. But recent results suggest it won't be long before they are.
In fact, in the past six Premier League games, only Tottenham (18) and Liverpool (14) themselves have picked up more than the 13 points accumulated by Sam Allardyce's side. Klopp stated this week that they had, "one of the best offensive lines in the Premier League," and he has a point. Wilfried Zaha is in the form of his life, Andros Townsend has remembered he used to play for England with some distinction and Christian Benteke, a negligible force for much of the season, has three goals in his past four games. And you know what they say about players returning to their old clubs.
And yet, there is much in Liverpool's favour, too. Allardyce, for one thing, has never won a Premier League match at Anfield, drawing three and losing 10. And he won't be able to draw on the strength of loanee Mamadou Sakho, with whom Palace have secured four clean sheets in seven appearances. He's ineligible to face his parent club. But it is Liverpool's form that most suggests a positive weekend ahead. And they will know that a win, while four members of the top six are busy with FA Cup commitments, will give the league table a pleasing look, placing them just two points behind Tottenham, albeit having played two more games.
That would be the signal for half a city's worth of misty-eyed "what ifs," but disappointed supporters would do well to focus on the positives. Liverpool already have six more points than they managed last season. As the end of Klopp's first full campaign approaches, they are making clear progress as a team. A win here would be a significant step towards what would be only their second Champions League appearance in eight seasons. All they have to do is avoid any slipups. But Crystal Palace, that's easier said than done ...
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.