The Season So Far
As stupid as it is to be disappointed in Alan Pardew’s management skills, Crystal Palace’s season has been quite the let-down. In hindsight, we can hardly be surprised that confirmed charlatan Pardew quickly ran out of ideas, left the engine in neutral for a few months and simply walked around blaming everyone bar himself for the Eagles’ slide – such shameless, arrogant and borderline-delusional abdications of duty have been his calling card for years now – but it wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.
This was supposed to be the season in which Palace stopped being one of those annoyingly crap lower-mid-table sides, fundamentally awful but not quite as awful as five or six other teams down there, always one disastrous run of form away from getting relegated but one thumping home win away from gaining the confidence to surge up the table.
This was the year they were going to break away and evolve into something better, something more permanent. A spine of Steve Mandanda, Scott Dann, Damien Delaney, Yohan Cabaye and £27m striker Christian Benteke looked quite solid and promising on paper. Flying wingers Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend were to provide the flair and chip in with goals and assists. This looked like the foundation of a new Crystal Palace: the not-crap Palace; the actually quite respectable Palace; the comfortably top-half Palace.
As it is, Mandanda never managed to dislodge the frankly terrible Wayne Hennessey in goal, Dann and Delaney collapsed under the immense workload as the midfield never found a structure to protect them, Cabaye played most of the season at walking pace and Benteke found himself often starved of service and support. Zaha has shone and noticeably upped his game, once again earning links to big-money moves, but Townsend has been rotten – rumours of a swift return to Newcastle just won’t go away, and it’s no surprise.
It was also no surprise that Pardew was finally moved on just before Christmas, having lost eight of his last ten games. Unfortunately for Palace fans, who’ve had to try to find it within themselves to support deplorable characters like Neil Warnock (twice), Tony Pulis and Pardew in the last decade, the utterly unlikeable and deeply dodgy Sam Allardyce was named as the new manager.
The malaise was so all-encompassing by the time Pardew left that Palace seemed very likely to go down, but smart January dealings and repetitive defensive coaching by Allardyce have started to see the Eagles fly. Three straight wins have lifted them out of the relegation zone and, while they’re not quite safe, it would be a surprise to see them go down now. Once again, Allardyce’s firefighting mission appears to have been accomplished.
The Season Ahead
The last ten games of the season will be all about securing Premier League football for another season and it won’t be easy. As well as facing Chelsea, Palace have to play Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United – all of the top six. This makes the remaining four games – against Southampton, Leicester, Burnley and Hull – must-win affairs. There’s a good chance the Hull game will decide which one of the two goes down.
On an individual note, loanee Mamadou Sakho is playing to save his career and it looks like he realises it, Wilfried Zaha is playing to convince a Man Utd-sized club to gamble on him again, and almost everyone else is playing to convince Big Sam that they shouldn’t be replaced as soon as the season finishes.
Basically, they might be dreadful but they’ve all got a lot to play for.
They’re a Sam Allardyce team. Do you need to be told? Let’s just say visitors to Stamford Bridge on Saturday will be going home with aching necks and strong feelings of nausea.
The organisational skills of Allardyce and Sakho – with a nod to defensive midfielder Luka Milivojević – have transformed Palace from a laughably open, ill-disciplined, easy to attack outfit into a well-drilled and committed defensive unit. Their last three games have produced three clean sheets and three wins, and it’s all down to their new-found on-pitch organisation. Chelsea may not find it that easy to make clear chances here.
Of course, this defensive solidity comes at the cost of removing all flair, guile and joy from their attacking play in order to maintain good defensive positioning, but before we get too offended at the aesthetic choices being made here let’s remind ourselves that Allardyce is the man who said “pretty football has never won anything” when the iconic Barcelona and Spain sides were Champions League, European Championship and World Cup winners, and move swiftly on.
Also, there’s some serious individual talent here, and while under Pardew ‘Have Individual Talent’ was obviously Palace’s rather stupid Plan A, it’s become a very useful and understandable Plan B under Allardyce. Sakho, Zaha and Cabaye are good enough to play for teams much higher up the table, while players like Townsend and Jason Puncheon are capable of pinging in rockets from distance when one least expects it. Benteke is something of a marmite player and while this writer is most definitely not a fan, he’s a proven Premier League goalscorer.
We could make this section more complicated than it needs to be, but let’s keep it simple: Crystal Palace are not just considerably worse than Chelsea, they’re a genuinely bad team.
This is the same side which recently battered Sunderland at home only to somehow walk away with a mind-boggling and embarrassing 4-0 defeat; the same side which West Ham and Swansea beat when those two couldn’t buy a win; the same side that has only won three in a row without conceding because those games were against Middlesbrough, West Brom (post 40-points) and Watford – all of whom are legitimately terrible.
As much as they’ve got some eye-catching talent, their weak links are seriously weak: Hennessey is one of the three worst number ones in the league and apart from Sakho they have no good defenders available. Cabaye is talented as hell but doesn’t care in the slightest, and Benteke and Townsend still look offended to be Palace players.
This is an improving team, sure, but not a good one.
Marauding ex-Blue left-back Patrick Van Aanholt is unavailable so Jeffrey Schlupp will deputise at left-back. Scott Dann is still out, so James Tomkins will continue alongside Mamadou Sakho. Other than that, Palace will be as expected.
Chelsea have a number of fitness concerns, with Thibaut Courtois, Victor Moses, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa all carrying knocks. All bar Moses are training, however, so we’ll predict just the one notable absentee for Antonio Conte’s men.
Chelsea 3-0 Crystal Palace.