CRYSTAL PALACE 0
LIECESTER CITY 2
Soyuncu 57 Vardy 88
BY SAM SMITH AT SELHURST PARK
A fixture against European hopefuls Leicester City is perhaps the best measure of whether Crystal Palace can maintain their top-half credentials, and the result at Selhurst Park means this is still up for debate.
Bar a complete capitulation, the Foxes will finish this season in the top 10. They are the team most likely to topple the division’s big six and qualify for Europe.
This victory in South London took them third and, given the quality at Brendan Rodgers’ disposal, there is no reason why they cannot stay in the top four.
To finish in the top half, a club needs a striker whose goal return will reach double figures. When Jamie Vardy turned home Youri Tielemans’ pass two minutes from time, it was the former England striker’s 10th goal of the season.
Jordan Ayew, for all his hard work and neat hold-up play, has scored four times. The Ghanaian has never scored more than seven in a Premier League season.
It says a lot that the Eagles were a match for Leicester all over the pitch – apart from in the final third. Defensively, they kept Vardy relatively quiet and the midfield were excellent.
The performance of Luka Milivojevic was perhaps his best at home this season, keeping the usually influential James Maddison at bay.
But that was where the similarity in quality stopped.
In the final third, Palace lack the final ball that Maddison and Youri Tielemans possess almost naturally – and the Eagles are absent of a striker with the finishing prowess of Vardy. Even out wide, they do not have a crosser as adept as Leicester left-back Ben Chilwell.
Every set-piece by the visitors ended with a chance. Jonny Evans headed over in the first half and in the second he forced an excellent acrobatic save from Vicente Guaita moments before Caglar Soyuncu opened the scoring.
The Turkish defender was allowed to run free at a corner, stooping low to finish from close range after a corner had been flicked on.
That Leicester nullified the threat of Wilfried Zaha on his 300th league appearance for Palace was to the detriment of the Eagles’ attacking forays. The Ivorian had only slight glimpses of goal and failed to properly test Kasper Schmeichel.
It was the contrasting depth in quality in the final third that was the biggest difference. Nullify Zaha and you generally stop Palace.
Most of the attacks the Eagles start go through their best player. Nobody else in the side carries the ball as well as Zaha does and the only player anywhere near capable of having the same affect is Andros Townsend, who missed the game through injury.
Stop Maddison and Leicester still have Vardy, Tielemans and the impressive Harvey Barnes to win a game.
In reserve, Rodgers had Demarai Gray and Mark Albrighton, but when Palace needed a goal here, Roy Hodgson could only call on Christian Benteke, who has four in two seasons, and Max Meyer, who has been inconsistent since signing in the summer of 2018.
The former England boss still refuses to utilise the creativity of loanee Victor Camarasa.
It is why Palace are still a long way from regularly finishing in the top half. They have come close in recent seasons, finishing level on points with 10th-placed Newcastle United in 2018, but they have not finished 10th – or above – since their second campaign back in the top flight.
It has now been six years since promotion and the Eagles are still expected to finish in a lower mid-table position.
That is not necessarily due to a lack of ambition, but instead the absence of regular goals. Defensively, they have the foundations of a side capable of being as good as Leicester.
Hodgson has hinted at money being spent in the upcoming January transfer window and that needs to be used to sign a striker. If it is not, the sooner they will lose grip on their place in the top half.
Palace (4-5-1): Guaita 7, Ward 6, Tomkins 6, Cahill 6, Van Aanholt 6, McArthur 6 (McCarthy 78), Kouyate 6 (Meyer 74), Milivojevic 7, Schlupp 6, Zaha 6, Ayew 6 (Benteke 78). Not used: Hennessey, Dann, Kelly, Camarasa