WEST HAM 1
BY MATT WOOSNAM AT SELHURST PARK
Taking chances when they arrive is always a crucial aspect in any game of football, but in tight games against teams separated only by a few places in the table, it becomes of even greater importance.
So when James McArthur contrived to miss from a few yards out – with Crystal Palace trailing West Ham 1-0 – Selhurst Park was stunned into silence for a moment, before the realisation of what had just happened hit and the home support groaned in astonishment, the away end laughing in disbelief.
The Scottish midfielder was on the end of a brilliant through-ball from Patrick van Aanholt. He took two touches further into the penalty area, dummied once, dummied twice, and having given Lukasz Fabianski next to no chance of saving from close range, somehow managed to chip his shot onto the outside of the post and behind for a goal-kick.
It rather summed up Palace’s day, and the last few months of their season, in truth. Chance after chance, miss after miss, save after save.
McArthur has been a stalwart for the club since his arrival on deadline day in the summer of 2014, with Neil Warnock determined to get his man throughout, despite opposition from others within the club. The fee, £5.5million up front, rising to £7m, has become a shrewd piece of business for a player who rarely offers thrills, but equally provides a high work rate and strong work ethic. His defensive qualities are valuable, but he generally doesn’t offer enough in attack at this level.
He does not, however, suit a system in which the midfield three are all fairly defence minded. Luka Milivojevic and Jeffrey Schlupp partnered him here, with Max Meyer forced to settle once again for a spot on the bench – and when the German is played, he is out of position on the left. It was hardly an adventurous line-up.
In some ways it worked, Roy Hodgson always opts for stability where possible, and despite significant first-half pressure, Palace only went behind thanks to a mistake by Vicente Guaita, who clattered Michail Antonio. The West Ham winger would frequently dramatise fouls throughout the game and avoid punishment from referee Craig Pawson, much to the annoyance of Palace fans, but this was a clear penalty.
Mark Noble sent Guaita the wrong way and the Hammers went into half-time with a lead. They were grateful to Fabianski for saving well from both McArthur and then Christian Benteke as both took aim from just inside the area. The Polish goalkeeper had a fine game as Palace dominated early proceedings before the visitors took a hold on the game but aside from Noble’s penalty, failed to take advantage.
For Palace, Benteke’s return to the starting line-up last week proved effective in a 4-4-2, but having reverted to 4-3-3 here, the lack of assistance from the midfield prevented him from being successful. This was not too far off the version of Benteke who scored just three goals last season. The previously returning Connor Wickham appears a more natural option in this role, although his subsequent injury and the arrival of Michy Batshuayi will prevent that from being a regular choice.
The decision to bring on Batshuayi for Benteke was logical, and although the loanee was culpable for failing to convert a decent opportunity in the second half, he provided more balance.
The front three of Andros Townsend, Batshuayi and Zaha worked well in the second half, although Townsend was far less involved than Palace’s talisman. Indeed, Zaha took the game by the scruff of the neck as they registered 17 shots on goal after the break.
It was he who would atone for his foolish sending off at Southampton by netting on his return. Taking the ball from McArthur after good work from the 31-year-old inside the area, he worked himself some space with his trickery, and took aim at goal. The ball looped off the boot of Issa Diop and over Fabianski to earn an important point to leave Palace three points clear of the relegation zone.
That it took until the final quarter of an hour to ripple the net was telling, despite the multitude of opportunities wasted. Still, their home form remains indifferent, still they struggle to score in front of their own supporters. The reason for that is simply that the chances are not converted. The reason for that however, is less obvious.
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Guaita 6, Wan-Bissaka 6, Kelly 7, Sakho 7, Van Aanholt 5, McArthur 6 (Meyer 79), Milivojevic 6, Schlupp 7, Townsend 6, Benteke 5 (Batshuayi 60, 6), Zaha 7. Not used: Hennessey, Ward, Dann, Ayew, Sako.