CRYSTAL PALACE 0
Ings 47 Hojbjerg 90+2
BY SAM SMITH AT SELHURST PARK
There is no Premier League team more reliant on an individual than Crystal Palace with Wilfried Zaha, and that was evident once more as the Eagles were beaten 2-0 by Southampton on Saturday.
Zaha has now missed 11 Premier League matches since the Eagles last won without him in September 2016. Palace have lost all 11. Almost as damning an indictment is that they have managed just three goals during the run.
The game against the Saints was supposed to be a symbol of the progression the South Londoners have made under Roy Hodgson. The 71-year-old’s first game in charge was a 1-0 defeat to the South Coast outfit in September last year.
But if you were to exclusively compare each, the conclusion would be that Palace have actually become worse. With context that is not true, but on SaturdayPalace fans were forced to reminisce about the dire football of a year ago when the ghosts of Frank de Boer’s troubled spell still haunted Selhurst Park.
Ironically, Zaha also missed that defeat against Southampton last year and – 12 months on – the Eagles are yet to devise a formula to succeed without their talismanic figure. No wonder only a monumental transfer fee would have prized him away from South London in the summer transfer window.
Palace were terrible against Southampton. It was perhaps their worst performance under Hodgson since the former England boss rekindled their form having maneuvered the Eagles away from the style of football that De Boer deployed.
The tackling was lacklustre, passing was wayward and the finishing was mediocre. This was the most lethargic performance of the Hodgson era. It almost felt like a meaningless end-of-season fixture with neither side having anything to play for.
But it should have been the complete opposite. Before the game, Palace had not won since the opening day – Southampton had failed to pick up three points at all. It was the visitors who were by far the better side; they continually weaved through the Eagles’ midfield with worrying ease and were afforded far too much space out wide due to Palace’s narrow formation.
It is impossible to pin this defeat solely on Zaha’s absence. It may have played a big part, the psychological aspects of not having your best player on the pitch are often understated, but Palace fielded a team capable of beating Mark Hughes’ side.
Debutant Jordan Ayew was shoehorned into Zaha’s usual position as the second striker alongside Christian Benteke, and the on-loan Swansea City forward began well but his lack of match fitness soon became very clear. He had Palace’s first proper attempt at goal, tricking his way around a couple of challenges before firing well over from 25 yards.
But the problems were yet to begin. The Palace back four offered a glimpse of the calamity that was to ensue when Cedric Soares was found in acres of space and given time to cross. Danny Ings controlled the ball and fired goalwards, only for Mamadou Sakho to make an outstanding last-ditch block.
Southampton continued to threaten. Wayne Hennessey kept the scoreline blank with two excellent saves – the first to deny a powerful drive from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg before he wonderfully tipped the ball over the crossbar when Luka Milivojevic inadvertently headed towards his own goal.
The Saints required barely two minutes of the second half to score the game’s first goal. Cedric’s hopeful pass over the top of the Palace defence allowed Ings to shrug off Martin Kelly with ease and roll the ball under the onrushing Hennessey.
The Wales goalkeeper – who has been excellent this season – would soon give Palace a lifeline when he saved Charlie Austin’s penalty just after the hour mark.
Palace failed to take advantage. James McArthur smacked the crossbar and Benteke missed a string of opportunities on another frustrating afternoon for the Belgian. His best scoring chance came when Alexander Sorloth – who was introduced alongside Max Meyer far too late – nodded down for the former Liverpool man, who could only head straight at ex-Eagle Alex McCarthy.
As Palace swarmed forward in search of an equaliser in added-time, Southampton struck again. An incisive counter-attack found Hojbjerg through on goal, Cheikhou Kouyate should perhaps have brought him down, and the German stroked past Hennessey.
The result leaves Palace heading into the international break with just three points from their opening four games. It is a better start than last season’s farcical beginning – but plenty of problems still exist.
The overriding dilemma remains succeeding without Zaha. While he remains absent with a groin injury, the psychological advantage will always be with the opposition.
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Hennessey 7, Wan-Bissaka 6, Kelly 5, Sakho 6, Van Aanholt 6, Townsend 5 (Kouyate 72), McArthur 6, Milivojevic 5, Schlupp 4 (Meyer 76), Benteke 4, Ayew 5 (Sorloth 76). Not used: Guaita, Ward, Riedewald, Puncheon.