It is a curious part of the human condition that we favour underdog stories, rather than taking from them the lesson that everybody is fallible, and no matter how hard you try or what unbelievable advantages you may have going for you, death will come to us all.
But then none of us ever thinks we’re Goliath. Every one of us, no matter how wealthy or privileged we are, instinctively mentally cast ourselves as the plucky upstart fighting against vast belligerent forces; so we like the stories that remind us that we can still win. All the money in the world can’t stop a bolt of lightning, and no amount of coaching can prevent a 30-yard volley into the top corner. That particular Andros Townsend goal, in this particular game, stood as a reminder that no football team is ever entirely invincible.
The last time Manchester City lost a Premier League game to a team outside the big six was their 4-0 defeat at Everton in January 2017, and the last time they lost a league game to a side in the bottom half was a 4-2 defeat away to Leicester the previous month. They had not lost a home league game to a bottom-half side since losing 3-2 to 11th-placed Norwich on the last day of the 2012-13 season.
Yet here were Crystal Palace, scoring a penalty to go 3-1 ahead from behind in the 51st minute having had just four shots – the one that didn’t go in hit the post immediately before Kyle Walker needlessly conceded the penalty – and 23% possession. This was the very epitome of one team taking their chances while the other had an off day.
There is never a good time for a disastrous result in a title race, it doesn’t get worse than losing your game in hand to a relegation-fighting side less than 24 hours after the league leaders had won their own fixture.
If you were writing an overwrought Hollywood script of this season, you would have it that Pep Guardiola spends Christmas day staring hungerlessly at the turkey, a paper hat and inexplicably still-tasteful colourful jumper sandwiching a glum, humourless face. Also Jurgen Klopp would be his neighbour and you would hear the laughter and frivolity of a happy German family bleeding through the walls from next door. Also Jose Mourinho would swing by to ring Pep’s doorbell and then run away.
It is hardly less preposterous that the man who inflicted this defeat on Guardiola’s City to put Liverpool firmly in control was the most maligned Liverpool manager of the last 50 years. Roy Hodgson has done a huge favour to the side he so disastrously managed for just 190 days in between the reigns of Rafael Benitez and Sir Kenny Dalglish eight years ago; but more significantly and pertinently for him, has led his side to a hugely unlikely second consecutive win that lifts them into 14th, six points clear of the relegation zone. If Rafa’s Newcastle should inflict a Boxing Day defeat on Liverpool, we can all start believing we’re living in a desperately hack version of the Truman Show.
For all City started the game without David Silva, Sergio Aguero, or Kevin De Bruyne, the man they missed the most was the injured Fernandinho. John Stones started in midfield in his stead, and struggled to match the hustling and forward momentum usually offered by the absent Brazilian.
Aguero and De Bruyne did show their faces off the bench in the second half, with the latter scoring a fortuitous goal with what was meant to be a cross from out on the right wing to give City hope of completing a comeback and at least securing a draw that would at least keep them just three points behind Liverpool. It was not to be, and this defeat means they must now perform flawlessly while hoping Liverpool slip up at least twice. A reminder, if it were needed, that Liverpool have dropped just six points in their 18 league games. In the unlikely event they could maintain that form, their four point gap at the top would be almost entirely insurmountable.
There will be other dramas and surprises in the second half of the season. After Newcastle, Liverpool will take on Arsenal and then City themselves – two of the three sides to have taken points off Liverpool this season. But City are unlikely to be able to afford another slip like this one if they are to retain their title.
Death comes to us all.
Steven Chicken is on Twitter