BY SAM SMITH
Crystal Palace’s two-year run of losing without Wilfried Zaha continued as Southampton won 2-0 at Selhurst Park.
The Eagles’ last victory shorn of their prized asset was a 3-2 win at Sunderland in September 2016 – and they sorely missed him in today’s game.
Both sides had chances to open the scoring in the first 10 minutes. Mamadou Sakho played a loose chested back pass to Wayne Hennessey but the Welshman retrieved the ball just before Shane Long pounced.
Christian Benteke then headed wide from an Andros Townsend cross, before Hennessey had to tip a deflected Nathan Redmond effort over the crossbar.
Southampton full-back Cedric Soares was finding too much space on Palace’s left-hand side and it was from his cross that the visitors had their first true sight of goal. Danny Ings was able to control the ball 10 yards from goal but Sakho produced an outstanding block to deny the former Liverpool forward.
Saints were the better side in the first half an hour, weaving through the Palace midfield with worrying ease and creating the better chances. Hennessey did well to tip a goalbound Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg drive over the crossbar, and Ings had his second effort when he cleverly tricked his way around Jeffrey Schlupp but his shot hit the offside Long.
Palace should have had a penalty moments later when Benteke met debutant Jordan Ayew’s flick-on and was about to shoot before Ryan Bertrand barged into the back of the Belgian. Referee Martin Atkinson had already turned down a softer penalty appeal for Palace earlier in the game, and was once again reluctant to point to the spot.
The first half was one of extremely minimal quality. This felt like an end-of-season fixture in which sides cease to have anything to play for. It should have been the complete opposite. Luka Milivojevic had the Eagles only shot on target in the opening 45 minutes with a 35-yard volley that was easily held by former Palace goalkeeper Alex McCarthy.
The second half required just two minutes to spark into life, and it was Southampton who struck first – but the Eagles will be disappointed with how it occurred.
Cedric played a hopeful pass in behind the Palace back four which Ings latched onto, shrugging off Martin Kelly with ease before sliding the ball through the legs of Hennessey.
It gave Palace a monumental task. McArthur struck the bar with a long-range effort but a lack of movement and energy, in addition to a lackadaisical approach meant they struggled to break down the visitors’ back line. The most extreme critique you could give this performance is that it resembled the slow and lethargic football under Frank de Boer.
Even when Benteke found himself through on McCarthy, he failed to beat the Saints stopper. The South Londoners then failed to convert from the pinball that ensued, with Ayew, McArthur and Townsend all having efforts blocked before Southampton cleared.
Hennessey was forced to ensure Palace did not rue their missed chances when he saved a penalty just after the hour mark. Aaron Wan-Bissaka blocked substitute Charlie Austin’s effort with his hand and Atkinson pointed to the spot – but Hennessey prevented the former Queens Park Rangers man’s spot-kick with his legs.
New signings Max Meyer and Cheikhou Kouyate joined fellow sub Alexander Sorloth in being introduced as Palace pushed for an equaliser. Benteke met a Meyer cross on 78 minutes but could only direct his effort wide of McCarthy’s goal.
Palace’s frustrations were encapsulated when Atkinson gave them a throw-in when it seemed the ball had gone out for a corner, before the official then waved away a further penalty appeal for handball against Wesley Hoedt.
Southampton would go on to strike a second in added-time. The Eagles lost possession as they swarmed forward and the Saints broke, with Hojbjerg rounding off a quick counter-attack.