DONCASTER ROVERS 0
CRYSTAL PALACE 2
Schlupp 8 Meyer 45+2
BY MATT WOOSNAM AT THE KEEPMOAT STADIUM
You could have been forgiven for raising the possibility of a weakened Crystal Palace side falling to League One Doncaster Rovers before Sunday’s match kicked off.
The weekend had, up until that point, passed without a single FA Cup upset.
Doncaster were the highest scorers in the tournament, while the Eagles were yet to concede.
Something had to give. In the end, it was a moment of real quality from Jeffrey Schlupp which broke the deadlock.
The midfielder raced down the left wing and thumped an effort across Marko Marosi and into the bottom corner. Just eight minutes had passed.
The goal arrived out of nowhere, with Palace initially being harried into early mistakes. Luka Milivojevic intercepted a pass, played it short and Schlupp was on his way. A deflection off Paul Downing was helpful, but this was very much Schlupp’s goal. Palace set up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Michy Batshuayi starting up front, flanked by Andros Townsend and Jordan Ayew.
Frustratingly, the Eagles failed to play to his strengths. They pumped long balls towards the Belgian striker and misplaced pass after misplaced pass.
Joel Ward offered little on the offensive side to support Townsend, highlighting how important Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s contributions have been in the Premier League this season. Ward was targeted with balls down the channel for the forwards, and both centre-backs Martin Kelly and Scott Dann were culpable of standing off, with former Millwall frontman John Marquis seeking to take advantage.
Wayne Hennessey was tested a handful of times in the opening stages but was equal to the efforts.
Despite clearly struggling to adapt to a higher pressing game, the Eagles defence only looked in genuine danger of conceding on a few occasions. Doncaster never got beyond them and into the area.
It is no coincidence that Roy Hodgson’s side have kept clean sheets in each round, and his back-up defence deployed in those ties has been adequate. Nonetheless, being adequate against two lower league sides is a different task to the rigours of the top flight. The lack of technical ability on the ball from the two centre-backs was exposed here, with Hennessey’s kicking also poor throughout, in turn hampering Batshuayi’s attempts to impose himself on the game.
But that is Hodgson’s team in a nutshell. They have not blown away any teams this season. That’s unlikely to change – whatever the level of opposition. Without James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho, the Eagles were less threatening. It showed how much better the central defensive duo are at starting attacks from the back. Dann and Kelly are less able on the ball and it showed.
They did not need to be at their best, their quality shone through – as it did against Grimsby in round three. When required to step up against a Tottenham side with more quality, albeit missing Harry Kane, they did so. Palace have a starting 11 in the league which is unlikely to be changed – and performances from fringe players here at the Keepmoat Stadium will probably not change that – but when called upon, those players who come in as replacements are more than capable of holding their own. Schlupp has become an important part of the team, and Meyer is starting to knock on the door.
The German midfielder was on hand to double the lead when Milivojevic – who has put a poor few months behind him to play a captain’s role in recent weeks – chipped the ball behind the Doncaster defence, and Townsend crossed for Meyer to nod home.
Admittedly the Eagles are yet to be tested by a team on a more equal footing, but knockout competitions, particularly those with as rich a history as the FA Cup, can throw up surprises.
Doncaster, perhaps mindful of a Sunday afternoon kick-off time, set admission prices at a maximum of £10. It ensured a sell-out.
Their supporters would have come away from this match feeling a sense of pride at initially reaching this stage, but also in making life a little edgy for Palace at times. The gulf between the Premier League and lower leagues is only increasing, but they were not overwhelmed.
Undoubtedly the priority for Palace is to finish as high as possible in the Premier League. With approximately £2million at stake per finishing position, that is understandable.
The question is whether fans would prefer to win some silverware or finish a few places higher in the league. The two are not mutually exclusive, but are often presented as such.
Many fans still long to see their team lift the FA Cup. The much overstated “romance” is not dead, but it feels as though it is slowly coming closer to its end.
This poor quality tie did nothing to suggest otherwise.
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Hennessey 5, Ward 6, Dann 6, Kelly 6, Van Aanholt 6, Meyer 7, Milivojevic 7, Schlupp 6, Townsend 6 (McArthur 80), Batshuayi 5 (Benteke 75), Ayew 5 (Kouyate 60, 7). Not used: Guaita, Woods, Riedewald, Tomkins.