BY SAM SMITH
For many Premier League clubs the September international break can threaten early momentum, but for Crystal Palace it seemed to come at an important time.
The Eagles have had a stuttering start to the new Premier League season, a campaign in which they were expected to finally move away from the torrid relegation battles that have embroiled them in recent years.
Injuries, loss of form to key players, suspension, and new signings taking longer than expected to get up to full speed have afflicted the South Londoners’ hopes of a positive start to the season.
There is a sense that Palace can now kickstart their season tomorrow at Huddersfield – fresh from a two week break which has provided time for the Eagles to overcome their adversities.
The opening day victory against Fulham was a false insight into how the South Londoners would fare in the opening month of the season.
With the four new signings not yet fit to start, and having lost both Yohan Cabaye and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the summer, a Palace side of poorer quality to the one which finished last season so well began the first four matches.
Unable to field their best side has seen Palace earn just three points from those games. It is a blow given that the run was perceived as being favourable when the fixtures were released.
The Eagles have not played badly, only in the 2-0 defeat to Southampton were they far inferior and that was largely because they lacked injured talisman Wilfried Zaha. Enough evidence exists to suggest their poor start can be improved.
Remember the abysmal start to last season. Under Frank de Boer and during the early weeks of Roy Hodgson’s tenure, there was a seemingly never-ending quest for a victory – or even a goal.
And while Palace have scored just three times in their four games, enough chances have been created to give credence to the argument that this side will score enough goals to move them up the table.
The only downside to this is they must rely on the still-misfiring Christian Benteke to rekindle the scoring form that made him one of the division’s most prolific forwards before last season.
The Belgian has continued his erratic form into the new campaign and his spell as the Eagles’ main striker is threatened by the emergence of Alexander Sorloth as a genuine alternative.
It is at the other end of the pitch where Palace have revelled. Wayne Hennessey has perhaps been one of the few highlights of the season.
The Wales goalkeeper faced the possibility of being replaced as the club’s first-choice when Vicente Guaita arrived from Getafe in the summer, but a string of excellent performances, his man of the match award at Fulham and his penalty save against Southampton, mean he is now undroppable.
Likewise, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has cemented his place as Palace’s first-choice right-back ahead of the long-serving Joel Ward.
The 20-year-old was outstanding at Craven Cottage in the Eagles’ opening fixture, nullifying the threat of Ryan Sessegnon, before setting up Zaha’s late goal.
He then excelled against Liverpool before being sent off late on.
It is in midfield where Palace must improve. Captain Luka Milivojevic has appeared slightly fatigued having returned just three weeks after his Serbia side were knocked out of the World Cup, but having been dropped from the White Eagles’ squad for the international break just passed – following a feud with head coach Mladen Krstajic – the former Anderlecht man has had an extra two weeks to recuperate. Palace could reap the benefits.
The summer signings have also been able to be more fully intergrated during the past fortnight.
Max Meyer is yet to make his full league debut but will likely begin the game against the Terriers.
The German has impressed during his three cameo appearances, in addition to his EFL Cup start at Swansea, and will improve the Eagles’ ability to keep possession – which has been a worry without the departed Cabaye.
Former West Ham man Chiekhou Kouyate could also feature again.
Palace have missed both Zaha and defender James Tomkins, particularly in the defeat against Southampton from which the Ivorian pulled out with a groin injury in the build-up.
Tomorrow’s trip to West Yorkshire will offer the best insight yet into just how good this Palace side – with Zaha back as the focal point, a fully-fit Meyer in midfield and Tomkins back in his formidable partnership with Mamadou Sakho – can be.