Stephens 25 Murray 87
CRYSTAL PALACE 1
By RICHARD CAWLEY at the Amex Stadium
It was more AARGH than VAR for Roy Hodgson as Crystal Palace bowed out of the FA Cup.
The Eagles boss rested Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke for Monday’s third round tie – clearly prioritising tomorrow’s Premier League home game against Burnley – but still ended up losing Jeffrey Schlupp and Andros Townsend to injury.
So the first ever use of the Video Assistant Referee system in a domestic game was hardly of the greatest importance to Hodgson, not when he looks set to have both players missing for a number of weeks.
It’s not been a great start to 2018 with Jason Puncheon and Scott Dann both ruled out for the remainder of the season with knee injuries.
Fortunately Palace have options at left-back in Patrick Van Aanholt and Pape Souare. And Bakary Sako, who provided further evidence of a resurgence with a spanking equaliser on the South Coast, may be able to fill Townsend’s boots.
Without this volume of injuries – the current total is eight although Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Joel Ward could be back available this weekend – you wonder exactly where the South London club would be in the Premier League standings.
They have now had sizeable chunks of the campaign without Zaha, Benteke and Mamadou Sakho. It’s not just their talents which have been missed, but also the strain that has put on other members of the squad who face an increased workload – no-one needs telling that bumps up the risk of picking up knocks.
Zaha’s return saw a spike in results and performances. Sakho would be the first-choice centre-back with James Tomkins, who was benched along with Luka Milivojevic, emerging as his most reliable partner.
Having at least one established striker fit helps. Benteke – even if there are rumblings behind the scenes that he is not the type of forward that Hodgson prefers to utilise – has his uses. The lack of crosses from out wide blunts some of his scoring prowess.
The word before the window opened was that the big Belgian could be sold, provided Palace can line up an acceptable replacement.
But suddenly the amount of incomings needed has swollen due to long-term injuries, as well as adding new areas of the pitch where reinforcements are required.
Sako’s situation is an interesting one. For much of his Eagles career he has not looked in peak condition. But, and this may be purely coincidence, the Malian international has slimmed down and belatedly began to deliver in a red-and-blue shirt, just as his contract moves into its last six months.
It throws up a dilemma for Palace. Sako turns 30 in April and his next contract will be his last lucrative one – you’d imagine the former Wolves winger would be seeking a three-year deal. How much does current form dictate negotiating strategy?
At times Sako was isolated at Brighton playing in the central striking role, particularly in the first half as the Eagles did not overcommit numbers forward.
His fourth goal of the season was a cracker. He struck across the ball with his weaker right foot from the edge of the box.
Neither side wanted a replay. And Glenn Murray managed to decide it just as a return at Selhurst Park loomed large.
To mangle an old Edwin Starr song – VAR, what it is good for? Deciding a contentious decision is the answer.
It looked as if Murray could have handled as he got the slightest of touches to help Uwe Huenemeier’s header into the back of Wayne Hennessey’s net. But the benefit of replays – something not previously afforded to the officials – saw them decide only his right knee made contact.
If only there was some new technology to speed up the recovery time for injuries, Palace would be first in the queue.