ASTON VILLA 0
BY SAM SMITH AT SELHURST PARK
It would have been inconceivable towards the end of last season that Jordan Ayew would depart the Selhurst Park pitch to a standing ovation and 25,000 people chanting his name.
But, following a match-winning performance including scoring the only goal of the game as Crystal Palace defeated Aston Villa, it was exactly the reception the Ghanaian deserved when he was substituted on 86 minutes.
Ayew was a maligned figure among Palace supporters during his loan spell in 2018-19, scoring just once in 20 Premier League appearances, but his goal against his former club means he has already doubled that tally in three games this campaign.
The 27-year-old was deployed as a lone striker in the 2-1 victory at Manchester United last weekend and started again in the role against Villa. It is a change from the usual narrow 4-4-2 that has majorly improved the Eagles’ attacking potency, with Wilfried Zaha back in his best position out wide and Jeffrey Schlupp on the opposing flank.
Apart from the dead-rubber 5-3 victory against AFC Bournemouth on the final day of last season, this was the most dominant Palace display in SE25 since rivals Brighton and Hove Albion were defeated 3-2 in April 2018. The Eagles could easily have been 3-0 up before half-time and, apart from a controversially disallowed goal in the fifth minute of added time, Vicente Guaita was barely troubled by the visitors.
Ayew was the star performer. His selflessness to continually press Villa’s back four, his ability to hold the ball up and his awareness to bring others into play throughout the game were just as pivotal as his individual perseverance to score the only goal.
The game had entered the final 20 minutes and appeared to be heading to an occasion all too familiar. Palace had created a glut of opportunities but either found Tom Heaton in fantastic form or fluffed their lines altogether. By half-time, the home crowd had witnessed 135 minutes of football at Selhurst Park this season without seeing a goal at either end. Frustration was beginning to grow.
But step forward the reinvigorated Ayew. Tyrone Mings seemed to be the favourite to beat the Palace number nine to a Schlupp through ball, only for Ayew to shrug off the former Ipswich Town defender and evade a tackle by Jack Grealish. The ex-Swansea man bore down on goal and clinically slid under Heaton. The noise that followed was an eruption of relief.
Roy Hodgson should also take some credit for the change in formation that has seen Palace take maximum points from their previous two games. In a 4-4-2, the South Londoners are often too narrow, too flat, too deep and have little fluidity.
But the 4-3-3 predictably allows Palace more width and for an extra midfielder to advance forward. James McArthur and Cheikhou Kouyate alternated in taking on the role of the supporting midfielder and each created good opportunities while also having chances of their own.
Defensively, Hodgson’s side are excellent. This was their 14th clean sheet since the beginning of last season and Villa barely troubled Palace – although the hosts’ cause was admittedly helped when Trezeguet was sent off nine minutes into the second half.
The only exception came five minutes into added time. Grealish strode through the Palace midfield and appeared to be fouled by Zaha before falling into Gary Cahill. However, the Villa captain just about managed to keep his balance before teeing up Henri Lansbury to drive home what appeared to be an undeserved equaliser.
Referee Kevin Friend had other ideas – he inexplicably booked Grealish for simulation, deeming his jump over the leg of Cahill to be an attempt to win a penalty. There was no intervention by VAR because Friend had already blown his whistle prior to the ball hitting the net.
Cahill, who came through Villa’s academy, has been a revelation since signing for Palace on a free transfer. The 33-year-old barely lost a battle with imposing striker Wesley and his constant communication with his fellow defenders adds extra assurance to the back line.
The Eagles lost Martin Kelly to injury towards the end of the second half but Mamadou Sakho replaced him to make his first appearance since February.
A centre-back pairing of the Frenchman and Cahill is good enough to help a club finish in mid-table. it is a lack of goals, particularly at home, which will drag the Eagles into any potential relegation battle. But should Ayew continue his form – and should he continue to be used in a system which suits not just himself but those around him – then the £2 million signing could solve Palace’s attacking conundrum.
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Guaita 6, Ward 6, Kelly 6 (Sakho 79), Cahill 7, Van Aanholt 6, McArthur 6, Milivojevic 6, Kouyate 6, Zaha 6, Ayew 8 (Benteke 86), Schlupp 7 (Townsend 84). Not used: Hennessey, McCarthy, Camarasa, Meyer.