It began on the 22nd December at the Etihad. Saturday’s 4-3 loss to high-flying Liverpool shows that Roy Hodgson is slowly but surely building a giant-slayer at Selhurst Park.
Sure, there have been blips along the way. A shaky performance against 10-man Grimsby and a lucky win for Watford on home soil show that there’s much more work to be done.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that with some important midfield signings and a sprinkling of magic dust on Andros Townsend’s scoring boots, Hodgson may be finally realising his enduring dream of leading a truly competitive Premier League side; not reactive but proactive for the first time in the top division.
It would be an understatement to say that Liverpool were fortunate against Palace on Saturday 19th. Injuries to both first and second-choice goalkeepers saw club legend Julian Speroni spend 96 minutes between the sticks for the first time in over a calendar year. His height (or lack of) and dampened reflexes were clear, in a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful effort to keep out the Reds’ potent goal threats.
Firmino’s and Salah’s second goals were particularly helped by Speroni’s poor positioning and reach; for Salah’s second, an off-target cross was deflected by the Argentine’s fist, spiralling into the goalmouth before being poked home by the Egyptian goal-machine.
Sadio Mané’s injury-time goal, Liverpool’s fourth of the afternoon, was also subject to bad luck; before the shot, Reds left-back Andy Robertson kept the ball in play with the palm of his right hand.
There were many positives to take from the game, including the fact that Palace pressured the near rock-solid Liverpool defence into several nervy goalmouth scrambles, and restricted their chances to ones which demanded such aforementioned luck. It was not a ‘should have got more’ win, rather one that Jürgen Klopp will surely be very grateful for, in amongst the story of their title challenge.
It could even be said that the Eagles were the dominant side; they scythed with ease through their opponent’s backline, doubling the number of goals Liverpool have conceded at home this season from three to six. Palace also became the first team to score more than once at Anfield since Spurs in February 2018.
Palace had won three of their last four trips to Anfield before Saturday’s game. On top of this, the last time Liverpool lost at home was to Palace in 2016/17, thanks to a Christian Benteke double.
These stats combined show that not only are Palace a major bogey-team for Liverpool but are gradually moulding themselves into a properly competitive Premier League outfit.
For too long have the South London side been seen as a ‘plucky’ team who go at opponents on the off-chance of a counter-attack, almost always in an underdog position.
Just like it was in the Championship, Selhurst Park is now a daunting threat to visiting teams and a fortress for the Eagles. At the ground, opponents have to work hard to scrape together a decent performance against an always energised and focused Palace team, spurred on by the wisdom and guidance of their 71-year-old manager and over 20,000 roaring fans. No other stadium is like it in the league.
There were hints of this upwards development last season; the first time would-be champions Manchester City dropped points in the league was in a 0-0 draw at Selhurst; only Ederson denying a last-gasp Luka Milivojević penalty rescued the draw for Guardiola’s men.
Hodgson has capitalised on the one-off glimpses of prowess Palace showed in 2017/18, with recent wins of over eighth-placed Wolves and champions Manchester City on their own patch. Putting three past Liverpool and playing in a style that was both combative and conservative show that Palace have finally ‘grown up’ in the Premier League, under Hodgson’s steady hand.
Managerial unrest, including Tony Pulis’ resignation days before the start of the 2014/15 season, and rapid player turnover meant the Eagles struggled to find their feet in their initial seasons in the division. Every campaign was a relegation battle. Other teams, such as Leicester and Wolves seemed to hit the ground running. Perhaps a smoother transition following promotion just comes down to money, something Steve Parish does have, but his wealth dwindles in the face of that of the owners at Molineux or the King Power.
Unfortunately, this hard fought past manifested itself into intense pessimism for most Palace fans and the wider media; when Allardyce arrived, nobody was saying he would stay beyond the end of the season. Sure, there was excitement at much-loved Alan Pardew’s appointment, but this quickly soured as it became clear his trajectory at Palace would be much the same as at Newcastle.
Palace have found an unlikely messiah in the form of Roy Hodgson; he may be the oldest manager in the league but has proved the most competent for the Eagles since promotion. Sensible transfers, wages and departures have shown that in just under two seasons, he is capable, in no uncertain terms, of transforming the club.
This goes without mentioning the developments off-the-pitch that Hodgson’s good management has allowed; an expensive stadium redevelopment that will see the capacity expand to near 34,000 and the relaunch of the club’s foundation as Palace For Life, providing education and training for disadvantaged young people in South London, and fundraising for local charities.
Recently, even more good news has come out of the club; the stadium’s hospitality rooms are now open to rough sleepers from the streets of Croydon. Success in retaining Premier League status can translate into social good too; Palace are a leading example in this field, the first team in the league to take such transformative actions.
Sure, a “cruel error” from Speroni cost the Eagles a point at Anfield. Sure, Roy can’t stay forever at Palace, who will almost definitely be his final club before retirement. It’s true that there is much more work to be done and, even this season, Palace are far from safety. The road ahead is long but finally, Eagles fans have something to be hopeful for and look forward to.
A beautiful project is maturing at Selhurst Park; it may have taken many years, but from the brink of bankruptcy in 2010, who’d have thought the team would be where they are now, both with results and their broader benefit to the South London community.
Very few clubs in English football can testify to such powerful change in the space of just nine years; whatever the outcome of the current season, anybody invested in running Crystal Palace football club should hold their head high.