It has been a nightmare run of fixtures for Crystal Palace, but the light at the end of the tunnel is coming into view. Having locked horns with London trio Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur in their last three games, Roy Hodgson’s side now face the daunting task of a trip to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United this weekend. After that, though, the schedule – on paper at least – looks a great deal kinder, and Palace must take advantage if they are to avoid another relegation scrap this season.
It has been a frustrating first half of the campaign for the Eagles, who have not kicked on in the way many would have expected. They have won just two of their 12 Premier League matches up to now, a 2-0 opening-day success at Fulham and a 1-0 victory over Huddersfield Town, drawing two and losing the remaining eight. Only Huddersfield have scored fewer goals than their eight (just six of which have come from open play), and although a defensive record of 17 goals conceded is superior to several teams above them – including, remarkably, Manchester United, whose backline has been breached on 21 occasions – Hodgson’s side have managed just three clean sheets up to now.
It is clear, however, that Palace’s principal problem is at the other end of the field. Their veteran manager has always excelled at producing well-drilled, well-organised teams who are hard to break down, and the fact that none of the side’s eight defeats have been by more than a two-goal margin shows that Palace are rarely blown away by opponents. Yet last season’s attacking issues have continued: Christian Benteke failed to rediscover his scoring touch before a knee injury ruled him out until the New Year, while Jordan Ayew and Alexander Sorloth have not convinced either. Hodgson has at times paired Wilfried Zaha with Andros Townsend up top, but that still feels like a makeshift measure rather than a long-term option.
Palace fans may have been hoping for investment in the January transfer market in a bid to rectify the problem, but Hodgson appeared to rule that out in a recent press conference. ““We have a lot of injuries and we aren’t blessed with options up front, but by the time January comes around they might be playing,” he said following the 1-0 loss to Spurs immediately prior to the international break.
“I’ve not had any real discussions with the owner about money available in January. There wasn’t any in the summer and whether that’s changed I couldn’t tell you. One thing is for certain though, we don’t have a very big squad but I have a squad which is very competitive. A squad which despite the poor return of points, has actually played some very good football in the first part of the season.
“We aren’t going to make the team better by signing from other teams’ reserves or subs or players who aren’t breaking in to teams.
“We have to find players who are better than what we’ve got, and I believe the players we’ve got aren’t that bad and they show that week after week.”
That is true to an extent and Palace have generally performed well in their last three games despite collecting just one point from meetings with Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. The south Londoners were unfortunate to lose to Watford in August and were arguably worthy of a point in losses to Bournemouth and Wolverhampton Wanderers, but there have been several poor performances too. The 2-0 home reverse to Southampton in September was undoubtedly the nadir of 2018/19 so far, but Palace were also disappointing in a goalless draw with Newcastle and relied on some good fortune to beat Huddersfield at the John Smith’s Stadium.
No one will expect Hodgson’s men to overcome United at Old Trafford on Saturday, despite the fact that Jose Mourinho’s charges have encountered plenty of their own problems in recent months. Defeat could see Palace slip into the bottom three – they are only outside the relegation zone on goal difference at present – but after this weekend’s trip to the northwest they will do battle with Burnley (home), Brighton and Hove Albion (away), West Ham United (away), Leicester City (home), Manchester City (away) and Cardiff City (home).
With the obvious exception of the visit to the Etihad Stadium on December 22, that is a run which could define Palace’s season. Some successful results in that period could see Hodgson’s side move clear of trouble and into the sanctuary of mid-table; conversely, if they lose more than they win before the start of 2019, the Eagles may face another prolonged battle against the drop.
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