Roy and the boys, take a bow.
Sadly, some will read that opening line and question why I would say it, while the majority I believe, will echo the sentiment. December(with a hint of November and January), has been one hell of a fixture pile up. The games have come thick and fast, each carrying their own importance. Naturally, this fixture congestion comes at the same time every year, so in a way, it is nothing new. This season though, it has been significantly different for us, and to me, has really shown how much fight and pride there is in our squad.
October and November saw us face a run of five games against the top five teams in the league(at the start of the run). We went into that run in sixth place, and after one draw and four defeats, we came out of it in 14th. Getting that run out of the way though, meant that we then had a run of games against teams around us, games where we could pick up points. The key to that, was making sure we started getting those points early. Going into the five game horror run, there was a lot of positivity around the club. By the end of it, while many of us were of the opinion that we had expected those results, some had slipped back to negativity and were calling for Roy to be sacked once more. If we went into the run of so called 'easier' games and continued to lose, then it would have really put the pressure on.
The first of those games, was away at Burnley. Despite the run of losses, we went to Turf Moor off the back of an impressive performance at home to Liverpool, in which VAR robbed us of one goal, and then failed to use to the same criteria to cancel out Liverpool's winner. The performance had been encouraging, the blow was Joel Ward getting injured and losing him for the whole festive period. With the board criminally failing to replacing AWB in the summer, it left us short. This meant that Martin Kelly, arguably one of our best centre backs in 2019, had to move to right back. He can play there, but it is not his strength. With Sakho only just coming back from injury, and Cahill getting a knock, it meant that Scott Dann would partner James Tomkins. It was an entertaining game, in which Burnley for most of the time, played to our strengths, by just playing long balls. They also helped by fluffing their decent chances. We were hesitant first half, protecting the makeshift backline. Even so, just before half time, Wilf broke the deadlock to give us the lead. Second half we were lively, but Burnley started to apply the pressure. Then Roy made a master tactical decision, taking Andros off and bringing Schlupp on. For a start, it stopped Burnley's momentum and made us more defensively solid. On top of that, Schlupp capitalised on a Ben Mee error to slam in the second. Three points, and a clean sheet, it was the perfect start to the run. The only issue, was that Dann got injured in the first half, and despite fighting on, he eventually had to go off, bringing Sakho back into the fray.
Next up, it was the visit of Bournemouth to Selhurst. Prior to last season's final day goal bonanza, this fixture had not been a good one for us. With Dann injured, Sakho came into the team, reuniting him with Tomkins, and putting our best centre back pairing in recent memory back together. We started well, buoyed from the Burnley win, and looked like we could go and get a good result. Then, on 19 minutes, Sakho gets sent off. I still argue that it was not a red card, however, the red was given and we were down to ten men. This saw Kouyate drop to centre back, but also meant that the likelihood of winning momentum had died a death. It only got worse minutes later, when PVA went off injured, bringing Schlupp on. Bournemouth had us backed into a corner, but failed to capitalise, as we seemed to enjoy a lot of possession for the rest of the half. The second half saw Bournemouth push us hard, but also provided one of the most enjoyable, inspirational team performances seen at Selhurst in recent years. Wilf, for me, showed one of the most mature performances I have ever seen from him. He was a constant outlet, dropping deep to get the ball, and then breaking on Bournemouth. He would either get us deep into their half, or win an important free kick, both of which relieved pressure. Wilf was having a lot of success by running at them. This helped Ayew reserve some energy for a while, and also seemed to inspire him. Jordan started doing the same thing, winning the ball with great effort, and then running at the backline, causing all sorts of problems. Once Schlupp joined in, suddenly our ten men were looking strong, as three of them put the Cherries under pressure. It culminated in Schlupp scoring a thoroughly deserved goal, and us getting a thoroughly deserved win. Everyone left the ground that night buzzing, and bursting with pride at the effort our boys had put in.
So, six points in two games, and a trip to bottom side Watford next. They had unsurprisingly sacked Flores for a second time, and made the shrewd appointment of Nigel Pearson. We had just played 70 minutes with ten men, and were starting to run out of players. Sakho was now suspended, and PVA was injured. Schlupp came in at left back, and Cahill returned to partner Tomkins. It was a poor performance in essence. The week had taken its toll a little. On top of that, Watford had the new bounce of Pearson's arrival. Guaita though, was a force to be reckoned with in goal, and we would leave Vicarage Road with a point, and a third clean sheet in eight days. Given that they beat us three times last season, this was a decent result. Add to that the fact they beat United 2-0 a week later, , shows this was a good draw. The real negative, was that Schlupp went off injured at half time, bringing Jairo Reidewald out from obscurity and into the team.
So, one week after the horror run, we had 7 points and three clean sheets from three games, which is a great return. Next up was Brighton at home, and we had the form to look forward to facing them. However, the worry was that they would be coming with a fresh squad, while we were starting to be down to the bare bones. We now knew that PVA would be out for a few more games, and Schlupp would be out for a few months. On top of that, Cahill had to have minor surgery and would be out for a while, and Andros had picked up a long term injury too. So, the absences saw Dann back in the starting eleven, Jairo getting a start and Benteke also getting a start. Now, let's be honest, the first 70 minutes of this game were terrible. While Brighton played some great football, we offered very little, and so when we went 1-0 down in the second half, it was no surprise. The last twenty minutes however, were totally different. Wilf found a way to score an equaliser, and then suddenly we had some great chances to win, but the winner did not materialise. In the end, it was a point that for a long time looked unlikely, and injuries aside, you have to question why our players can never get themselves up for this game, while the Brighton players do. Oh, and of course, we picked up another injury. Jairo went off at half time, meaning McArthur played the second half at left back.
Next was the long trip to Newcastle(and I don't just mean the ridiculous climb to get into the away stand). We went up there with the good news that PVA was back, but in the process we had also lost Scott Dann for the Xmas period to injury. With Sakho serving the last game of his suspension, that meant Kouyate started at centre back. It was a game very much in reverse to the last two. We were the better team, we created chances to score, but failed to take them. We should have left the deep depths of the North with three points. Instead, having failed to take our chances, we gave away an 86th minute goal to the Geordies, giving them an unlikely 1-0 win. In typical Palace fashion, we helped those in need by giving Almiron his first Premier League goal in 27 attempts. Losing was hard enough to take. On top of that, the Roy Hodgson boo boys were back out in full force, slating him for not making changes and us losing the game. Apparently one loss in five was not good enough for some, despite our crippling injury problems.
Having to put that defeat behind us, it was time for some Turkey and a bit of goodwill, before West Ham came to visit on Boxing Day. While kids all over the world were unwrapping their new toys, Roy would have been hoping that Santa would deliver a player or two back from injury. Santa, to his credit, played his part a little, because Sakho returned from suspension. The Grinch though, also paid a visit to Selhurst, with Benteke being struck down with injury. It was a closely fought game, with both sides having some chances, but when West Ham took the lead, it was easy to fear the worst. Kouyate though finally scored his first Palace goal, against his old club of all teams! Then, in the final few minutes, Jordan Ayew scored an absolute dream of a goal, and in the process gave us a big win and huge 3 points. The Grinch though, would also have one final act to play, as PVA went off injured in the second half.
With Christmas, the games really do come thick and fast. 48 hours after that win, we were down at St Mary's against a resurgent Southampton. With PVA out once more, Jairo returned to left back. Meanwhile, with Meyer now also a regular starter, we had pretty much run out of players to put on the bench, meaning most of it was made up of our Under 23's. It was a spirited performance, one in which VAR played a hand, cancelling out Max Meyer's opener due to offside, a decision that very much looks to be a wrong one. We would however, take the lead courtesy of James Tomkins. Our defensive solidarity and organisation looked like it could help deliver the three points, only for a rare error by Martin Kelly, gifting in form Ings with an equaliser. The goal galvanised the Saints, and a top drawer performance by Guaita helped us take the point. While it was frustrating that our error cost us all three points, the fact that Southampton had beaten Chelsea away the game prior to this, and then Spurs at home the game after we played them, it shows how well we have done. Also, on the plus side, no one got injured!
With December done, the Christmas period drew to a close with the final round of fixtures on New Years Day. We travelled to Carrow Road to take on bottom club Norwich. The results from the earlier kick offs would have put more pressure on the Canaries, as they start to cut adrift, and so they would have been raring to go. They would also have been inspired by their previous performance in a 2-2 draw with Spurs. With no fresh injuries, it was the same starting eleven as we had at Southampton, but not the same start, as we found ourselves 1-0 down within 4 minutes. Norwich defended resolutely, it has to be said, and we found it tough to break down. On top of that, they hit the bar and missed a sitter in the second half, before Connor Wickham equalised with his first Premier League goal in possibly two years. It was a hard earned point, and a valuable one. Oh, and of course, Sakho went off injured, pushing Kouyate into defence once more!
It has been an incredible month of fixtures for us. Some great performances, some grafting performances, a couple of weak performances. A few clean sheets, a wonder goal, it has had it all. Sadly though, what it has had most, is injuries. Roy's first season here, we had injury troubles. Yet, I don't think I have seen anything like the trouble we have had this month. It has highlighted just how much the board have let Roy down in terms of quality squad depth, and just how much they need to act this January. Still though, people call for Roy to go, and it is just madness. Yes, we have played teams around us, and yes on paper you would be expecting us to win at the bottom teams. However, we have played them at times of resurgence, with a depleted squad. Just look at the facts. From Burnley onwards, the following list of players have been injured during this period:
Joel Ward, PVA(twice), Schlupp, Sakho, Dann, Cahill, Benteke, Reidewald, Camarasa(Not that he would play) and Meyer(illness).
That is a ridiculous amount to lose, from a squad that lacks depth. On top of that, from what I hear, players like Zaha and Kouyate have played through injury. Despite this, we have lost just once in the last eight games, picking up three wins and four draws. At a time when there are so many fixtures close together, and managers rotate their squad, we simply haven't been able to. The likes of Kelly, Tomkins, Luka, McArthur, Wilf and Ayew have played every minute of the Christmas period. The fact that they have done so, and yet have managed to lose just once, is incredible. Roy and the team have shown huge resilience in this time period, fighting for every scrap when it would have been so easy to just roll over and be defeated. They have been a credit to themselves, to us fans and to the shirt.
It is now 2020, and we start it in 9th place, just 12 points off the safety target. That is a great achievement by the standards of previous seasons, especially given our squad limitations. So I say well done to the team, you make us proud to support you.