CRYSTAL PALACE 2
Ayew 83 Milivojevic 90+5 pen
BY MATT WOOSNAM AT MOLINEUX
Crystal Palace’s evening started with news that a loan deal for Dominic Solanke was off – and ended with Jordan Ayew finally ending his wait for a Premier League goal.
The on-loan Swansea man has struggled in a striking role for the Eagles but opened his account at Molineux. It was his first goal since April 14.
If Solanke’s temporary switch from Liverpool had been completed then Ayew, who netted 11 times in all competitions last season, looked likely to be heading back to south Wales.
That’s not to say that one result changes Palace’s issues.
It has long been evident that a target man is missing. While Ayew worked hard here, he toiled with precious little service and the inability to fashion chances himself. Connor Wickham presented the sole striking option on the bench, but manager Roy Hodgson was curt in downplaying the 25-year-old’s chances of starting a game anytime soon following the Chelsea defeat.
Palace’s game plan to suffocate the Wolves wingbacks – by playing higher up the pitch and with a greater tempo – proved successful.
A switch to a 4-3-3 formation saw Ayew replace Jeffrey Schlupp. He acted as the middle man in a front three with Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha flanking him.
Despite leaving it late to score twice without reply at Wolves, Crystal Palace were much improved from the defeat by Chelsea on Sunday. Much of that was down to Hodgson utilising the players he has at his disposal more adequately to reflect their natural positions and showcase their ability best.
The 4-3-3 formation was akin to that which was deployed in the stunning 3-2 victory at Manchester City before Christmas, with the two wide forwards dropping back to form a five-man midfield when the Eagles were out of possession. There were two most curious things which stood out in the opening 45 minutes at Molineux.
Firstly, Wilfried Zaha was in the role performed expertly by Max Meyer in that win in Manchester, albeit he struggled to match the German’s display, but his drop in form did however show a few signs of abating here.
The second was more surprising. Palace dominated possession, particularly in the early stages – at one stage of proceedings they had gleaned 71 per cent, a role reversal from most of their matches this campaign.
When able to race down the left wing, Zaha had the beating of Matt Doherty. He also drew Romain Saiss into pulling him down, for which he earned a yellow card just before half-time. He would go on to entice Ryan Bennett into felling him in the area in the final moments of second-half stoppage time, with Luka Milivojevic duly despatching the penalty.
When Zaha goes wide, the Eagles are a better side. He did not shirk his defensive duties. There were precious few attacks down the left, with the visitors often penning Wolves back into their own half.
The Eagles lacked a cutting edge, as they have done so many times this season. Milivojevic took aim from the edge of the area but Rui Patricio was equal to his powerful strike.
Andros Townsend worked his way past several players only to smash an effort well over the crossbar. Patrick van Aanholt stung the palms of the Portuguese goalkeeper. For all the endeavour there remained little quality. The lack of composure on the ball was alarming.
With 20 minutes remaining, Cheikhou Kouyate was well-placed to take aim at goal from distance, but he took one touch too many and the opportunity went awry. Ayew and Townsend were equally guilty of similar moments of wastefulness.
Without a ball carrier in the middle of the pitch, it was always likely to be a game lacking in quality. The absence of Meyer was keenly noted, with Kouyate’s frequent forays forward ending abruptly with the loss of the ball.
But despite their shortcomings, Palace were certainly the better side and more intent on probing forwards.
When the pressure ramped up in the final 10 minutes, they reaped the rewards of a more positive approach. Van Aanholt lashed the ball into the area, Ayew took one touch and trapped it dead before calmly slotting past Patricio to net his first Palace goal with composure sorely lacking since his arrival.
It was a superb goal and the travelling support sang his name in recognition, albeit perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek given his tribulations.
This was by no means a smash and grab from Palace. Hodgson must surely now realise his best formation is a blend of 4-3-3 and 4-5-1.
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Guaita 6, Wan-Bissaka 7, Tomkins 7, Sakho 7, Van Aanholt 6, Kouyate 6, Milivojevic 7, McArthur 7, Townsend 8, Ayew 7 (Wickham 88), Zaha 7. Not used: Hennessey, Ward, Kelly, Schlupp, Riedewald, Meyer.