By Mike Collett
LONDON, May 5 (Reuters) - Liverpool's quest for a first English league title since 1990 has foundered on naive football in two matches where a less gung-ho approach might have produced four points instead of one.
The dramatic collapse from a 3-0 lead with 11 minutes remaining to draw 3-3 at Crystal Palace on Monday came eight days after Liverpool had dominated possession against Chelsea at Anfield only to run out 2-0 losers.
The squandering of those precious points means they top the Premier League table with 81 and one match to play, one ahead of Manchester City who have two games remaining.
Manager Brendan Rodgers was forced to concede the title race was effectively over and, in his view, City would now be crowned champions for the second time in three seasons.
In both games, Liverpool's chase for goals, allied to poor defending across the back, cost them dearly. They were not isolated tactical lapses.
The stats speak for themselves. Liverpool have scored 99 goals this season but conceded 49. Teams that concede that frequently do not win titles.
Rodgers spoke after the Palace match about how his team should have "managed the game better" when they were 3-0 ahead, but he must share the blame for not changing his tactics.
Liverpool's continued quest for goals when they could have shut up shop was not irrational but an attempt to close the goal-difference gap with City that would decide the title if the rivals ended up with the same points tally.
It started out as a plus-9 advantage for City, went down to plus-6, and then back to plus-9 as Liverpool imploded.
Former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher said Rodgers should have shored up his sometimes fragile central defensive partnership once the lead was established.
"He should probably have gone with a back three because Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtl definitely need help because the record shows their partnership is not good enough and its not acceptable," he told Sky Sports.
"Liverpool are in top position for goals scored but they are in the bottom half of the table for goals conceded.
"If you are thinking about going for a title, doing it in a way that's never been done scoring lots of goals but conceding that many, history shows you it can't be done.
"You cannot concede that many goals if you want to go and win the league."
Rodgers might indeed have brought on a defender instead of replacing striker Daniel Sturridge with another attacking player in Victor Moses when Liverpool had been pegged back to 3-2.
"I think we had enough defensive players on the field," the Northern Irishman said.
"Hindsight is a great thing - to have brought on Daniel Agger to shore it up, yeah, but then they scored again to make it 3-3."
Steve Claridge, another former Premier League player now a media pundit, could not hide his astonishment at the turn of events: "I am lost for words, how do you sum that up?
"Liverpool were in control at 3-0 but they didn't kill it off and that's down to the manager. They kept playing the same way and you can't do that when you are having periods where you are not in control of the game."
Liverpool, as they have been all season, were impressive going forward as they built what should have been an impregnable lead that would keep their title dream very much alive.
A header from Joe Allen put them 1-0 up in the 18th minute before two goals early in the second half from Sturridge and newly-crowned Footballer of the Year Luis Suarez, their 21st and 31st goals of the campaign respectively.
But they collapsed like a house of cards as Palace hit back with three goals in just over nine minutes, one from Damien Delaney and two from Dwight Gayle, who hit the killer equaliser in the 88th minute.
That collapse and the defeat to Chelsea came after an 11-match winning streak that propelled Liverpool to the top of the table just over a month ago.
But while the goals flowed at one end, their porous defence had never stopped conceding.
They let in three goals at relegated Cardiff City in a 6-3 win, and also conceded three to Swansea City in a 4-3 win. They conceded two to both Norwich City and Fulham although they won both games 3-2.
Rodgers was asked at Selhurst Park on Monday why his team defended so poorly as the end of the match approached.
"It's decision-making" he replied, "We could have done better on the first one. We had to make better decisions in the game and that's what cost us.
"Maybe we just got carried away and we thought we could get more than three goals. The important thing was to win and we didn't do that."
As a result of that decision-making, Liverpool's long wait for a 19th English title will almost certainly extend to a quarter of century, while City will celebrate their fourth next weekend. (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)