CRYSTAL PALACE 0
HERTHA BERLIN 4
Plattenhardt 43, Ibisevic 52, Mittelstadt 76, Selke (pen) 83
BY SAM SMITH
That the Crystal Palace players trudged off the pitch, heads down, to a smattering of boos after this heavy pre-season defeat, is the most damning indictment of a frustrating summer for the Eagles.
It is exceedingly worrying that this lethargic performance against German Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin was as good as Palace’s players could offer with just seven days until the Premier League season begins. It summed up what has been a tough pre-season for Roy Hodgson’s side, with only two new signings, an influx of injuries and a squad stripped to its bare bones.
The Eagles are familiar with this scenario, but never before the season has even started.
The 71-year-old boss will be troubled by the unavailability of many of his usual starters so soon before the difficult opening fixture against Everton. Mamadou Sakho was absent despite marking his return from a five-month lay-off against Bristol City the week before and having played 60 minutes at AFC Wimbledon last Tuesday.
Jeffrey Schlupp picked up a knock in the 5-0 victory against the Robins while James Tomkins remains absent after a groin operation. Wilfried Zaha and Cheikhou Kouyate are yet to return to training having been granted longer holiday after the Africa Cup of Nations and it would be a surprise to see either line up against the Toffees at the weekend.
And so Hodgson was forced to piece together a squad with the remaining 14 first teamers and a few of the club’s academy players.
The average age of the outfield substitutes was 20, and the only sub above the age of 22 was the 26-year-old striker Connor Wickham – excluding the 32-year-old goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey.
Should nobody return from injury before Saturday, this will most likely be the same starting XI that begins against Everton. It must perform far better than it did here if it is to claim a successful start to the season.
In truth, it would have been hard to believe before the half-hour mark that Palace would go on to lose so convincingly.
The German side hardly troubled Vicente Guaita in the first half, while Christian Benteke had a goal disallowed for offside, Scott Dann struck the crossbar and Jordan Ayew missed a sitter inside the six-yard box.
Hertha took the lead in fortuitous circumstances on the stroke of half-time. A corner was cleared only as far as Ondrej Duda, whose scuffed effort struck the back of Marvin Plattenhardt and trickled into the corner of the net.
But the second half was far more one-sided. The visitors were given the autonomy to patiently stroke the ball around the pitch before pouncing, with the unmarked Vedad Ibisevic converting a cross from the left. Martin Kelly then deflected in a speculative Maximillian Mittelstadt strike before Davie Selke completed the rout from the penalty spot.
And the final whistle began the first tough week that the Eagles will face before next May and the season is yet to even begin. The club must add to its dwindling squad if it is to better last season’s two victories before December.
It is likely that Palace will have added to their two signings by the time the campaign gets under way. The Spanish midfielder Victor Camarasa is strongly linked with a move from Real Betis. The former Chelsea captain Gary Cahill, Everton’s James McCarthy, Montpellier’s Ruben Aguilar and CSKA Moscow’s Fyodor Chalov are all of interest to the south Londoners.
But Hodgson has never thrown new signings straight into his starting line-ups. Ayew, Guaita, Kouyate and Max Meyer each had to wait a while for their full debuts after signing last summer. Michy Batshuayi was a substitute for his first two games after his loan move from Chelsea in January.
The former England boss has publicly called for additions to his squad – so unhappy is he with having more or less the same miniscule rota that started pre-season in early July – so he will welcome the arrivals of new players.
It is difficult to think of a campaign where there was such little anticipation from supporters. Selhurst Park was barely half full for this friendly and those who turned up created an atmosphere so subdued that at times you could hear the players shouting to each other on the pitch.
It is also telling that the off-field trouble has diverted the attention away from the Holmesdale Fanatics’ controversial move into Block E of the lower Holmesdale Road stand – which should have been the main talking point heading into the new campaign.
But it was this time last year that Palace’s successful summer, laden with goals and big victories against Reading and Toulouse, was met by a disappointing start to the season.
Perhaps it is true that not much can be concluded from pre-season results, but on this performance the Eagles should certainly be worried.
Palace (4-4-2): Guaita (Hennessey 46), Ward, Dann, Kelly, Van Aanholt, Townsend (Pierrick 83), McArthur, Milivojevic, Meyer (Dreher 83), Ayew (Wickham 75), Benteke. Unused: Hobbs, Tavares, Riedewald.