Milivojevic 25 pen Schlupp 87
BY MATT WOOSNAM AT SELHURST PARK
The importance of a team is often made clear by the absence of individual brilliance. For so long, without Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace failed to win in the Premier League. But now, against lesser teams at least, they appear to have found a recipe for relative success as they continue to edge towards Premier League safety.
Possession is readily conceded by Roy Hodgson’s team, home or away, no matter the level of opposition. At Selhurst Park on Saturday, Fulham had 63 per cent of the ball, and yet they failed to register a single shot on target.
Some of that was down to the way they set-up, with only three genuine attacking players, but plenty of it was down to the impressive man-marking of Aleksandar Mitrovic by Mamadou Sakho.
For as much as individual errors have cost the Eagles in games this season – and again there were a few here, not least Sakho heading wide from yards out in the second half – sometimes things turn on their head.
Cyrus Christie would go to show that it is not just Palace who make stupid mistakes. The defender, albeit under pressure from Christian Benteke, handled the ball inside the area, and Michael Oliver duly awarded a penalty midway through the first-half. Luka Milivojevic stepped up and scored despite Sergio Rico coming close.
The visitors’ game plan went out of the window. Claudio Ranieri sought to utilise Joe Bryan and Christie as wing-backs, with the former intending to link up with Ryan Babel down the left and overrun Andros Townsend and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. It quickly became apparent that this was not going to work, with Wan-Bissaka barely breaking a sweat in containing the pair.
The full-back’s rise to prominence has been extraordinary. His performances are verging on the ridiculous. While fellow academy graduate Zaha allows frustration to boil over – and sat out this match following his dismissal at Southampton last week – the 21-year-old appears unruffled by the demands of regular top flight football in his debut season. A senior England bow is not out of the question given the injury to Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and the indifferent form of Tottenham duo Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker.
Fulham had come to nick a goal and defend for their lives, so to go behind was a hammer blow.
What truly hamstrung them was their failure to compete in the air. Palace went for a 4-4-2 formation, with Benteke starting alongside Jordan Ayew, and they looked to play balls up to their centre forwards and win the aerial duels.
Benteke almost scored a wondergoal, the Belgian striker was unlucky to see his bicycle kick ricochet off the crossbar and go over.
The theme of the game was Fulham’s inability to cope with that front two, and their hopelessness beyond the edge of Palace’s penalty area. Potshots from distance were all the rage as they hustled and bustled but failed to trouble Vicente Guaita in goal. Patrick van Aanholt once again struggled at left-back, but even with his failings and consistent wastefulness in possession, Fulham were incapable of creating anything.
A solid defence, a capable if uninspiring midfield, and a group of players who grafted hard; Hodgson knew what he was doing. But it was still only 1-0. Enter Michy Batshuayi. His first touches made him space in the tightest of areas, and he shot at goal. Rico was just able to save, but could do nothing when Jeffrey Schlupp followed up.
Palace tend to play the same way week-in, week-out. Against dreadfully weak sides such as Fulham, it works. At Manchester City and Liverpool it worked to an extent, likewise against a weakened Tottenham side in the FA Cup, but when better sides come to town, they cannot rely on the incompetence of their opposition to bail them out for not taking chances when they arrive.
Another season in the top-flight is more or less assured, barring any major failings in the coming months, and the club has cut its cloth in the final year of the current Financial Fair Play cycle. The departures of Jordon Mutch, Jason Puncheon, Sullay Kaikai, Jonny Williams and Alexander Sorloth covered the cost of bringing in Batshuayi for six months, with Bakary Sako on relatively low wages.
The arrival of the Belgian striker strengthened them, as evidenced in this comfortable victory, but it is those departures which provide a springboard for a new strategy in future transfer windows which could propel the club away from a relegation battle each year and towards a comfortable mid-table finish.
Huddersfield, barring a minor miracle, look doomed. Fulham under Ranieri stand a somewhat better chance, but they too look highly unlikely to maintain their Premier League status. That realistically leaves six teams, including the Eagles, to take the final relegation spot.
There are several sides who are worse than Palace in that cohort, and the Eagles have proven that they are able to grind out results even if they are not performing to the standards they ought to be capable of, even if they make hard work of it.
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Guaita 6, Wan-Bissaka 8, Tomkins 7, Sakho 8, Van Aanholt 5, Townsend 5, Milivojevic 7, McArthur 6, Schlupp 7 (Sako 90+1), Ayew 8 (Batshuayi 82), Benteke 8 (Meyer 72). Not used: Hennessey, Dann, Kelly, Riedewald.