CRYSTAL PALACE 2
Wickham 9 Townsend 34 pen
BY MATT WOOSNAM AT SELHURST PARK
The FA Cup has long been romanticised, but at Selhurst Park for this fifth round tie, there was certainly love in the air.
Connor Wickham ended a 799 day-wait for a goal. After countless false dawns on a long, long road to recovery from a serious knee injury suffered at Swansea City in November 2016, this felt like a completion of his rehabilitation.
A little over two years since his last start in a red and blue shirt, the former England U21 international was on hand to turn home from close range after Jeffrey Schlupp’s cross, following the midfielder’s surging run and cut back.
An instrumental part of the Eagles’ run to the final of the same competition under Alan Pardew in 2015, Wickham ran, arm aloft, towards the Whitehorse Lane End in celebration.
His last goal in the FA Cup came in the semi-final just shy of three years ago, with a more remarkable header against Watford. But the aesthetics of Sunday’s finish – turned over the line with his knee – he will care for not one bit.
Wickham pelted the ground with his fists, much like during Palace’s 5-4 defeat by Swansea in November 2016 when he went to ground with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, but this time it was in sheer jubilation, instead of pain. It was a release of emotion.
South London had already seen two cup upsets the previous day, first Millwall scrambling a last-minute winner against Everton, then AFC Wimbledon’s dramatic 4-2 victory over West Ham.
This was not unfamiliar territory for either side. Both had been here before. Martin Kelly’s goal was enough to see off Spurs in round five at White Hart Lane during the Eagles’ run to the final.
What Wickham’s goal provided was exactly what the Eagles had been lacking in their Premier League campaign, someone in the right place at the right time. A natural centre-forward is more knowledgeable of the positions to take up than auxiliary strikers.
This was turning out to be quite the comeback for Wickham. Wilfried Zaha aimed a cross deep into the penalty area, and Kyle Walker-Peters, under pressure from the 25-year-old, handled the ball. Kevin Friend pointed to the spot and Andros Townsend doubled the lead. No need for VAR, this was as clear as they come.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that Spurs, the side challenging at the top end of the table, would be the ones to cope better with a change in personnel. But as it happened, the visitors were poor. Misplaced pass after misplaced pass and powderpuff in the centre of midfield. Counter-attacking is Palace’s game, and it is no secret. But time after time Spurs wasted possession in the final third and they broke either down the wings with pace, or with balls towards the target man and played off him.
Walker-Peters was hopeless against Townsend, who ran him ragged throughout, but equally failed to provide much in the way of support for Georges-Kevin N’koudou in attack. Fellow youngster Oliver Skipp was one of the culprits in allowing the Eagles plenty of time and space on the counter.
The only fault in this performance came through Patrick van Aanholt. The left-back has been culpable for several opposition goals this season, and it was his foul on Juan Foyth in the first half which conceded a penalty. Fortunately for the Dutchman, Kieran Trippier blasted wide and the Eagles went into the break with a two-goal lead.
But the majority of Spurs’ attacks came down his side. It was no surprise they targeted him, given Joel Ward’s resolute defence on the opposite flank. There was no shortage of effort from those on the fringes of the Palace side, but that does not always transpire into quality.
It did here, however.
They defended as a unit, and there were few individual errors. When they did come, they were not punished.
This corner of South London may not have been as full to the brim as a few miles up the road in South Bermondsey, or a little further west at Kingsmeadow, but the atmosphere was celebratory from the early stages.
As Wickham made his way to the touchline to be replaced by Christian Benteke, all four stands rose to their feet to acknowledge a fine centre-forward performance which showed few signs of rustiness despite his lay-off.
Then, at full-time, the inevitable worship of Julian Speroni. His name sung with gusto, the fans’ hero very much reciprocating. A clean sheet earned with a handful of good saves, particularly a fine first-half double from N’Koudou.
If this is his sign-off, then to make it a club record 112 clean sheets would be a fitting way to end.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Speroni 7, Ward 8, Kelly 7, Dann 7, Van Aanholt 5, Kouyate 6, Schlupp 6, Meyer 8 (Milivojevic 79), Townsend 9 (Ayew 88), Wickham 8 (Benteke 70, 6), Zaha 5. Not used: Tupper, Sakho, Wan-Bissaka, Riedewald.