LEICESTER CITY 1
CRYSTAL PALACE 4
Batshuayi 40 Zaha 70, 90+3 Milivojevic 81 pen
BY MATT WOOSNAM AT KING POWER STADIUM
As Roy Hodgson became the oldest person to manage in the Premier League, he used all the nous and experience garnered in his 71 years of life to mastermind a thumping victory over Leicester. The story of Crystal Palace’s season has been one of make do and mend, the wastefulness of possession and frustration in front of goal. At the King Power stadium, for the best part of 70 minutes, they had little in the way of possession to waste, let alone the opportunity to waste chances to score. But then a counter-attacking masterclass took place as they ran rampantly through the Foxes defence to score three times in the final 20 minutes. This was as good as it gets.
Four away goals in the league is not a feat often accomplished, with the Eagles having only achieved it twice in this decade – a 5-4 defeat by Swansea in November 2016, and a 4-1 win at Sunderland in April of the same year. After a turgid opening 45 minutes it was not looking likely here, but Hodgson’s side took advantage of the hosts’ desperation to kick-on after Jonny Evans equalised, and were clinical in front of goal. It was certainly not the best of starts, but they remained level, with Vicente Guaita only tested twice, once from Jamie Vardy who headed narrowly over, and then from Harvey Barnes who saw the Spanish goalkeeper parry his effort from the edge of the area. Leicester sought to utilise Barnes down the right, and exploit Joel Ward’s lack of pace. The youngster was their main threat throughout.
Much like at Doncaster in the FA Cup last week, when they did clear their lines or look to attack, it was through Michy Batshuayi, only to pump the ball into the air. Given the Belgian’s attributes are largely with the ball at his feet, it seemed to be more out of urgency as opposed to a plan. In this scenario, his fellow countryman, Christian Benteke may have been a more suitable option.
At times it was like watching the Palace side which lost at West Ham and Brighton, and failed to score against Cardiff at home. Batshuayi cut a forlorn figure up front with little support from Wilfried Zaha or Andros Townsend who spent most of their time defending.
Yet, somehow, out of nothing, came the opening goal. It arrived in perceived controversial circumstances, with Barnes going down in the Eagles area – albeit having been fairly challenged – before Zaha was fouled on halfway by a combination of Ricardo Pereira and Wilfred Ndidi, much to the fury of the Foxes players and supporters who felt hard done by. Jeffrey Schlupp played the resulting free-kick to Luka Milivojevic, who found James McArthur and the midfielder took aim from distance, only for Batshuayi to hang his leg out and guide the ball past Kasper Schmeichel.
One shot on target, one goal. The manner in which it arrived will not matter to Palace, but there was a huge amount of fortune involved, with the hosts very much in the ascendency.
Hodgson used his wealth of knowledge and experience to keep his side well-drilled defensively. He set his team up the way he has done throughout his career – to be hard to break down. Leicester’s inadequacies were laid bare, but that was partially a result of their opponent’s excellent defence.
But while their effectiveness as a unit was good, the midfield was consistently bypassed and provided little assistance on the offensive. This is the perennial problem for Hodgson; how to set up a three-man midfield. Milivojevic is a given, the skipper coming into better form of late, and Schlupp had been key to Palace’s five-game unbeaten run coming into this game. However, the limitations in attack are noticeable, and Max Meyer’s excellent performance at Doncaster put him in the frame for a potential starting berth. It appears, however, that Hodgson does not trust the German to work as well in this defence-first mindset which has, on the whole, served the Eagles well.
Yet, for all the success of that tactic, it can be too big an ask to soak up significant pressure. That pressure told when Evans equalised with an excellent finish from close range after a long throw caused problems in the Palace area.
However, this Eagles side doesn’t seem to give up. It is full of players who put in the maximum effort – even if they are sometimes lacking in quality – and that is testament to Hodgson as much as to his players. McArthur – the villain for a dreadful miss against West Ham – dummied his man and clipped the ball to the back post for Zaha to volley home perfectly to make it 2-1 with 20 minutes remaining.
With 81 minutes on the clock, any hope of a comeback was extinguished when Evans tripped Schlupp in the area and Milivojevic converted a penalty for the 15th time in his Palace career, having failed to score just three times from the spot. The stats suggest that Zaha is back to his best. That was his third goal in as many games. He finished the game off in the third minute of stoppage time when substitute Jordan Ayew harried the defence, won the ball and laid him into space, with Zaha blasting the ball past Schmeichel to complete an away performance which, after a slow start, blew Leicester away.
There was luck, undoubtedly, but the Eagles were surprisingly clinical in front of goal. In so many games they have been so wasteful, but this was where things clicked into place.
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Guaita 6, Ward 5, Tomkins 7, Sakho 7 (Dann 77), Van Aanholt 6, McArthur 8, Milivojevic 6, Schlupp 5, Townsend 6 (Kouyate 80), Batshuayi 6 (Ayew 86), Zaha 8. Not used: Hennessey, Riedewald, Meyer, Benteke.