CRYSTAL PALACE 2
Milivojevic 76 pen Van Aanholt 88
BY MATT WOOSNAM AT SELHURST PARK
It is the second-highest number of points they have achieved at this stage in a Premier League season, second-highest number of goals scored, second-fewest goals conceded and best-ever goal difference… yet Crystal Palace’s current top-flight campaign feels as though it could scarcely have been more underwhelming.
Perhaps it is because the season has been stop and start, with bursts of form and runs of games without a victory. Perhaps it is because there has been so little to play for in the majority of this season – only in the period running up to Christmas did it ever seem like the Eagles would be truly dragged into a relegation battle, and at no point have they ever looked like challenging for a Europa League spot.
An FA Cup run provided some welcome impetus into a stagnating season in which entertaining football has been at a premium, but even that culminated in disappointment.
On paper, this should be one of the golden periods in the club’s history, and in reality it is, but the nature of football is that people are left wanting more. The emergence of Aaron Wan-Bissaka in the last 18 months has been the highlight, but otherwise there is little to shout about. A club middling in the league standings, amongst the same competitors, just a little better than those sides year after year.
They say you should be careful what you wish for, but if the price of standing still is more of the same then you could be forgiven for wanting to heed the advice of chairman Steve Parish who has previously called on supporters to be more ambitious.
Huddersfield Town were the latest visitors to Selhurst Park, where victories and goals have been a rare occurrence. With their relegation set to be confirmed should results go against them, the Terriers came out initially to play Palace at their own game. Sit deep, try to counter-attack. When teams do this, the Eagles tend to find life a little more complicated. So it proved in the early stages.
Michy Batshuayi ought to have put his side ahead when he cut inside, beat his man but could only shoot too close to Huddersfield keeper Ben Hamer. Chris Lowe had two golden opportunities to put the visitors in front, first with a header from the edge of the area which Vicente Guaita comfortably gathered, before a fizzing drive which the Spaniard superbly pushed behind for a corner. That aside, precious little actually happened in the first-half.
If points were awarded for the team which was able to bore their opponents into submission, and matches lasted 45 minutes, then this one would have ended with both teams taking a share of the spoils.
There was a smattering of boos, not for the first time at Selhurst Park this season. But, also not for the first time, Palace came back out transformed after the break. They were greatly aided by the knowledge that Southampton leading Brighton and Wolves trailing Burnley meant that Huddersfield had to win in order to delay a return to the Championship. The game became far more open.
By full-time Palace could have won by five or six goals, were it not for Andros Townsend inexplicably missing several gilt-edged chances, or Wilfried Zaha trying to take on the entire Huddersfield team twice before running himself into trouble despite having only Hamer to beat. Alex Pritchard was by some distance the visitors’ most impressive player, his creativity and intelligent play put Palace under some pressure, and he tested Guaita with a shot from inside the box. Elias Kachunga also struck an effort at the Eagles’ goal which the Spanish goalkeeper was able to keep out. For all their second-half pressure, it wasn’t until Zaha was fouled inside the penalty area that the hosts took the lead. Luka Milivojevic made no mistake from the penalty spot with 76 minutes on the clock, and Patrick van Aanholt made sure of the victory when he fired across Hamer with two minutes remaining.
There was to be no repeat of last season’s opening day 3-0 humbling for Palace. This result relegated the visitors back to the Championship.
It was a familiar tale at Selhurst Park, a woeful first-half followed by an improved second period. That was greatly aided by Roy Hodgson’s in-game management, which has rarely been effective but here deserved credit. The introduction of James McArthur for Max Meyer at half-time and Christian Benteke replacing Batshuayi were game-changers. McArthur’s energy and tenacity had been missed, while Benteke linked play well as the formation was changed to a more effective 4-4-2.
Despite their relative success this season, there is a sense of underachievement. But once again, they found a way to turn things around. This team is capable of grinding out results despite not necessarily playing well, and that in itself is a positive.
Crystal Palace (4-3-2-1): Guaita 7, Wan-Bissaka 7, Tomkins 5, Dann 5, Van Aanholt 6, Meyer 4 (McArthur 45, 7), Schlupp 5, Milivojevic 6, Townsend 5 (Kouyate 80), Batshuayi 6 (Benteke 73), Zaha 7. Not used: Hennessey, Ward, Kelly, Ayew.