After a weekend off due to FA Cup action Palace return to Premier League competition against Sheffield United.
The middle of the Premier League is even more muddled this season than it has been in years past. A difference of only four points separates fifth place and fourteenth, keeping dreams of a trip to Europe in reach for most of the division’s clubs. Palace find themselves in the thick of it in eleventh, but saw their unbeaten run in the league come to a harsh end in their defeat to Southampton last match-day. The Eagles hosted this weekend’s opponents in August and fell to a 1-0 defeat at Selhurst Park.
Sheffield United have been a bit of a surprise package this season, surging to a strong position of eighth in the table, despite being newly promoted. The Blades have been on a tough run of form with only four points from their last five league games; however, it should be noted that those games included two against Manchester City and one each against Arsenal and Liverpool. Sheffield United also continued their cup run last weekend, beating Millwall in the fourth round.
While much of the excitement in recent days has been about the impending closure of the January transfer window, some of the biggest squad additions could be in the form of returns to health. Absentees Andros Townsend, Christian Benteke, Joel Ward, and Patrick van Aanholt have all returned to training, although Cenk Tosun has picked up an injury. Despite the return to fitness of Ward and van Aanholt expect Jaïro Riedewald and Martin Kelly to hold their places flanking Gary Cahill and James Tomkins, especially after Riedewald’s Player of the Month winning performances of late. Captain Luka Milivojević will also return from suspension and could step right back into the first eleven if Roy Hodgson deploys James McArthur on the right. Expect Jordan Ayew to lead the line with Tosun out, either as a lone striker in front of a five man midfield or in a partnership with Wilfried Zaha.
Under manager Chris Wilder Sheffield have made a rapid climb up the rungs of the football ladder going from League One to the Premier League in under fours years. Wilder plays a fluid style with the position of his team shifting from three in the back to five in the back depending on if the team has possession or not. This stout formation has helped Sheffield United to keep the second best defensive record in the Top Flight, behind only league leaders Liverpool. Another factor in the Blade’s success has been health. Between standout keeper Dean Henderson and the five first choice defenders there have been a combined two missed starts.
In a game with two resolute defences and two tame strike forces the match will likely be decided by one of two things. The result of the midfield battle and each team’s ability to finish what will likely be a limited number of chances. Much like in defence, Sheffield have had a consistent midfield trio of John Fleck, John Lundstram, and Oliver Norwood, who have started a vast majority of the team’s games this season. While none of these players are stars they form a concrete and experienced group all of whom played a major role in promotion last year. This three-man midfield formation will likely allow Palace to dominate possession in midfield, but will make it more difficult to find the probing pass to unlock the defence.
The profiles of both Palace and Sheffield United both lend themselves to low scoring matches, and there is no reason to expect Saturday to be any different. This is exactly the kind of match that Wilfried Zaha has the potentially to absolutely dominate. Zaha will be head and shoulders above all other players on the pitch and if he can conjure a moment or two of magic it could very well be the difference between one and three points for The Eagles.