BY SAM SMITH AT SELHURST PARK
Last week it seemed the start of the Premier League season may arrive too early for Crystal Palace. The bulk of their transfer business coincided with the final few days of the transfer window and Roy Hodgson navigated through pre-season with a squad depleted by injuries and unavailability.
Had the Eagles been offered a goalless opening-day draw against the heavy-spending Everton after Hertha Berlin dispatched them 4-0 at Selhurst Park the weekend prior, they would have accepted it.
It appeared a risk for Hodgson to start the same 11 who were so convincingly beaten by the Bundesliga outfit. Perhaps it was a move made out of necessity, with none of his injured players recovering in time to purely make up the numbers, but the performance that day was so poor that at least a couple of tweaks seemed inevitable.
But Hodgson, backed by his 43 years in football management, knows far better than this reporter, who has not even been alive for half the time the 72-year-old has been coaching.
In all those years, from England to Scandinavia to Italy, from Switzerland to Finland before returning to his hometown club almost two years ago, he has amassed the experience that has been so evidential this summer.
He correctly called out the lack of transfer activity after a Palace XI were thrashed 6-2 by Barnet last month. But for the rest of pre-season he continued to work with his limited resources with no angst.
The Eagles have since signed four players and Hodgson publicly praised chairman Steve Parish and sporting director Dougie Freedman for their work in completing those deals.
Hodgson also immaculately dealt with the situation surrounding Wilfried Zaha’s transfer request last Wednesday. He defended his star player, accepted the winger’s willingness to leave but still maintained a good relationship with the Ivory Coast international. Some other bosses would either clash with a wantaway player or outright deny such allegations of a player wanting out altogether.
The former Liverpool manager seemed shocked when asked if he had previously been forced to handle such a scenario as Zaha’s, because of course he has done. He pointed to Javier Mascherano going a step further than Zaha by refusing to play for Liverpool in 2010 before pushing through a move to Barcelona. It is those little experiences, some that last only a matter of days or weeks, that have prolonged Hodgson’s career at the top.
And this performance against Everton that earned a draw reduced some of the nerves being felt by Palace fans about what lies ahead in this campaign.
A back four made up of the fourth and fifth-choice centre-backs, and without the departed Aaron Wan-Bissaka, kept out a Toffees attack that was put together at a cost of £75m. Substitute Moise Kean raised that amount above £100m when he replaced Dominic Calvert-Lewin midway through the second half.
Palace rode their luck at times, Gylfi Sigurdsson somehow side-footed wide when a loose ball fell his way 12 yards from goal. Patrick van Aanholt cleared another effort from the Iceland international off the line and Vicente Guaita made a fantastic save from Seamus Coleman.
In typical Hodgson fashion, once the defence settled and rode out the early storm, Palace’s attacking potency developed. Max Meyer and Scott Dann both had goal-bound efforts blocked.
Jordan Ayew – Palace’s best outfield performer – had an effort saved when put one-on-one with Jordan Pickford in the second half. The England goalkeeper then made an even better stop to deny Meyer in a similar situation.
Morgan Schneiderlin’s red card meant the South Londoners were the superior side in the final 15 minutes. Zaha had a chance to shoot inside the penalty but was crowded out.
Hodgson is a safe pair of hands who will keep the club in the top-flight. He can correctly point out that last season was actually an improvement on the campaign before, despite finishing a place below, because the Eagles managed 49 points compared to the 44 in 2017-18.
Hodgson found a way to win those points without needing Zaha. That had not been the case for more than two years and under two different managers.
Some say Zaha is the difference between Premier League survival and relegation for Palace. But Hodgson is also a big reason why the Eagles remain in the Premier League. Should Palace have a successful few months, the club’s hierarchy would do well to extend his contract, which ends next summer.
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Guaita 7, Ward 6, Kelly 6, Dann 6, Van Aanholt 5, Townsend 5, McArthur 5, Milivojevic 6, Meyer 6, Ayew 7 (Zaha 65, 6), Benteke 6 (Wickham, 83). Not used: Hennessey, Cahill, Camarasa, McCarthy, Kouyate.