It was the expression of shock on those in the visiting contingent, from Brendan Rodgers in the technical area to Luis Suárez out on the pitch, which told the story. At least the Uruguayan had mustered a smile of disbelief while the game was still in progress before disintegrating into floods of tears, hiding his face in his shirt. Steven Gerrard was just as inconsolable before recovering some level of composure to hoist his team-mate from his haunches and push away the intrusion of a television camera.

Liverpool are not arithmetically out of the title race. The point that seemed so trivial here actually restored them to the top of the table. But the sense at the end was that this trophy will not be theirs just yet – not this season, for all its ridiculous twists and turns. This was just the latest contest to defy belief, an assured and authoritative away win snatched away by three Crystal Palace goals in 10 frantic minutes at the end. The comeback was barely credible, inspired by Yannick Bolasie's power and trickery and Dwight Gayle's finishing. The visiting players trudged from the pitch with their colour drained and distant, haunted looks in their eyes. This whole occasion had been transformed into the death of a dream, a cruel twist on the memory of Istanbul in 2005. This was the Atatürk in reverse.

Rodgers' team should have rattled up the cricket score they had required long before this contest veered from their control. Where Joe Allen had registered early, Daniel Sturridge and Suárez's rat-a-tat rewards at the start of the second half had apparently left Palace deflated and ambling towards their end-of-season lap of appreciation. Then came Damien Delaney's deflected shot from distance, renewed belief and the substitute Gayle's first goals here since August. Much has been made of Liverpool's tally in the league – now 99 – but it was the caving in of their defence which undermined them at the last. Title winning teams do not capitulate in the manner of those final 11 minutes, when chaos reigned and the red mist overcame even the most experienced in their number.

There was an irony that profligacy, too, had cost them. They should have been out of sight, with 26 shots peppered at the Palace goal and even the demands placed on Julián Speroni, a goalkeeper who has played out of his skin, unfair in the extreme. Suárez, Sturridge, Mamadou Sakho, Allen and Glen Johnson had been culpable of misses from presentable chances, their attempts rather snatched as if the pressure of having to eat into Manchester City's gaping goal difference was choking composure. They had won here 6-1 in the Premier League era, 20 years ago. Go back further and there was that 9-0 at Anfield: Nicol, McMahon, Rush, Gillespie, Beardsley, Aldridge, Barnes, Hysen, Nicol again ... a list of scorers that still haunts Steve Coppell to this day. A cricket score of similar proportions had been required if they were not to rely quite so heavily on Aston Villa and West Ham on their visits to the Etihad stadium over the next six days.

There were penalty appeals, too, plenty of them valid but all waved away by Mark Clattenburg. Perhaps Liverpool became carried away with their pursuit of further rewards, playing the "Roy of the Rovers" football Rodgers later bemoaned. "It's thinking clearly under pressure which is important," he said. "Their first goal was on 79 minutes, and even then they played it short from a set-piece because they thought we might break if they put it into the box, and the guy [Damien Delaney] has got the shot in far too easily. The second comes from our corner, a break-away and then we play a square pass on the edge of the box? It's just decision making. They had momentum when the third went in. That crazy spell... we'll need to be better than that in the future."

The worry is this had been their opportunity. Next year City and Chelsea will be stronger still, Manchester United will most likely be Louis van Gaal's, and Arsenal may even be trophy winners once again. There will also be Champions League football with which to contend, Liverpool's schedule instantly more cluttered, suddenly more demanding. This was their 42nd game of term in all competitions. Chelsea have already played 56, City 55, Arsenal 54 and Manchester United 53. Only 20 players have started for Liverpool in the league over this campaign – a select group that includes Andre Wisdom, who began once – which is remarkable on one hand but ominous on another. They will be shopping in a different market this summer but they require depth of quality as well as numbers.

Rodgers, numbed by the brutality of the finale, was still struggling to come to terms with the surrender long after the final whistle. He referred to it as a "loss" at one point, and it felt that calamitous. "We go top tonight as well," he added with a flicker of a smile, "with 81 points and a week to go in the season, and we sit here devastated." Tony Pulis even suggested they should not be written off just yet, given how ludicrous the script for this campaign has been. And yet, for the next six days, it will be that faint hope that kills them. This pursuit looks over.