It is that time again, as I look ahead to our next four fixtures, and provide my hopes for what they may bring.
January is over, it is now just a memory. The most boring month of the year in my opinion, flat after Christmas, lacking in oomph, I am glad to see the back of it. With the arrival of February, we have the first ‘event’ of the year, as the 14th sees men rushing to a garage to buy flowers on the way home, the ‘gorgeous’ people gloat about how many mysterious cards and gifts came their way, while others look on with empty hands, knowing they would be happy to just have the one(yes this was me for too many years). February doesn’t just bring the commercial pressures of Valentine’s Day though, it also brings with it fresh fixtures for our beloved Palace to tackle. Before I delve into those matches however, it is customary for me to glance back at the four that have just been on gone.
Now, those who read, and remember, my last of these articles, will know that I said we should target nine points from our run of Watford, Liverpool, Southampton and Fulham. I also stated I did not expect us to achieve this, and so 6-7 points would be acceptable. Sadly, our return from those games was merely 4 points, a major blow in my opinion. In terms of simply a return, we failed. That, is if you look at the simplistic view of just what points were gained(which you could argue is all that matters). The 4 point return does not quite tell the tale of those fixtures though, and we could have had so much more. Against Watford, we were 1-0 up at half time. It wasn’t a great game, but it was going fine. The problem was that just before half time, Guaita had to go off injured, and with Wayne in goal, we just didn’t look comfortable. This would be the root of the problem in the second half, as Watford scored with their only two efforts on target, the first of which was Wayne’s fault. It still could, and should have been different. At 1-0, Wilf was through one on one and blew it. At 1-1, Jimmy failed to tap in at the back post. Fine margins again, but once more we paid the price. I honestly believe that had Guaitastayed on, we would have won this 1-0, but instead it was a 2-1 loss and a blank start. A week later we travelled up to Anfield, with all the talk being about Julian Speroni returning to the starting line up over a year after his last appearance. I went to this game, and it was possibly the best away game I have been to in which we have lost. To lead at half time 1-0 was something none of us expected. To be 2-1 down very quickly into the second half was something I had called at half time! We never gave up though, with Tomkins bringing us back level at 2-2. Even after Jules’ error for 3-2, and then an injury time Mane goal for 4-2, we did not stop. Meyer pulled one back, and we then went close one final time before the full time whistle. We had Liverpool on the ropes, and had the game run for another five minutes, I think we would have been talking about a 4-4 classic. Liverpool fans were relieved when the whistle went, and a few approached us after the game to praise both our fans, and our performance. We had no points, but we had a hell of a lot of pride.
The FA Cup would then bring some joy, with a 2-0 win over Spurs booking our place in the fifth round for the first time since our run to the final in 2016. Connor Wickham got his first goal in over two years, while Jules got to (likely)end his career the right way, with a win and a clean sheet that saw him over take Nigel Martyn for the sole record of 112 clean sheets. The good mood would sour a little though, when we travelled to St Mary’s the day before the transfer deadline. All was looking well when Wilf put us 1-0 up and we were playing well. As always though, we failed to kill them off, and a lapse at the back saw the Saints grab an equaliser. With most of the teams around us having won the night before, a draw was not really the result we needed, but in the end had to settle for. The frustration was compounded when Wilf was sent off for two yellows in the space of a few seconds, meaning we had to see out the final few minutes with ten men, and wouldn’t have him for the key Fulham game. One point from three games meant that Fulham was absolutely vital. They came for a point, their set up showed that and we always struggle when teams do that. Thankfully an error at the back gave Luka the chance to do what he does best from the penalty spot to give us a 1-0 lead. Nerves were understandable given we had blown such a lead in the previous three games, but in the end we would limit Fulham to zero shots on target. An exciting cameo from Michy Batshuayi lead to Schlupp doubling our lead late on, and securing the three points. Sadly though, a Cardiff win prevented us from putting more daylight between ourselves and the relegation zone. So, four points and a cup win. Not the return we had desired, not what we deserved either, but this is Palace, and we never do it the easy way right?
So now we look forward, in a month that will prove tricky. Three more league games face us, with a trip to Leicester sandwiched between home games against West Ham and Man Utd, as well as a cup match away to Doncaster. So let me start with the visit of the Hammers tomorrow. This is a fixture that is always hard to call, because you never know which version of each team is going to turn up. We had a little spell of wins against West Ham in our first few seasons up, but that has dried up lately, and the games have proven to be more of a struggle. Under Sam Allardyce, we were thumped 3-0 at the London Stadium. Then last season, when they came to Selhurst, West Ham raced into a 2-0 lead. In the second half we galvanised, and in the dying moments of injury time, Wilf ripped their defence open to equalise, and get only our 4thpoint of the campaign. In the reverse fixture, we would throw away a 1-0 lead to draw 1-1, losing Bakary Sako to injury in the process. This season we once again threw away a 1-0 lead at the London Stadium, with West Ham storming to a 3-1 lead in the second half of a game that ended 3-2. West Ham have riches of attacking talent. Yes, Yarmolenko is out injured, but even so their options are vast. That was a big difference back in December, where we struggled to field one striker, while they played a total of four. They spent a lot of money in the summer, and appointed a big name boss in Manuel Pellegrini in order to move away from relegation battles to top half challengers. In a way, that has been achieved, because they currently sit 10 points clear of the bottom three, and five points clear of the ‘relegation pack’. On the flip side though, they are currently bottom of the ‘mid-table pack’ in 12th, although only two points separate 12th to 8th. They were also dumped out of the FA Cup by AFC Wimbledon, meaning their competitive season is all but dead. For the outlay they made, more would surely be expected, and so they will need to push hard until May to try and get as close to 7th as they can. Recent struggles in performances indicate that this may not happen however, and a 10th placed finish would be more likely. Still, they will be buoyed by their strong performance against Liverpool on Monday in the 1-1 draw, and will come to us with an attack boasting Andersen, Hernandez, Arnautovic, Perez and Carroll. They will cause us problems, I have no doubt of that, and I would put money on them scoring. What will help though, is that West Ham will look to play, to have the ball and attack. This will suit us, because exploiting teams on the counter is our strength. This time we also boast some added strength in attack, with Benteke back and playing well last week, Ayew looking improved and the new arrival of Batshuayi. It is going to be a hell of a game I reckon, and one that both sides will fancy they can win.
After West Ham, we step away from the league, as we travel to the Keepmoat Stadium to face Doncaster in the FA Cup. I have some mixed memories of Donnie, having been there three seasons running when we were in the championship. Sadly, they weren’t memorable for the result, as we didn’t win any of them. I do remember though, one of them being Neil Warnock’s last game before he moved to QPR. He had stayed purely for the FA Cup replay at Villa, and by this game no longer wanted to be here, and we all knew he was leaving. He spent the entire game sitting glumly in the dugout, totally uninterested while we blanked him and returned to the ‘South London’s Red & Blue Army’ chant to show we were done with him too. I also remember staying behind for twenty minutes after one of the games, singing ‘Don’t Worry’ on non-stop repeat as we stood tall in the midst of a relegation battle. This time round though, things are different. Doncaster are now a League One team, while we are in the midst of our sixth consecutive Premier League season. This match isn’t about points, for to the winner goes a spot in the FA Cup Quarter-Final. Doncaster will be well up for it, and with so many Premier League teams already fallen in the cup this year, they will fancy themselves to add another to that list. They will go full strength, while I fully expect us to make changes and use the squad. Now, here is where I say something that could divide opinion. This match, in some ways, is the key one of this month. Don’t get me wrong, the league games are crucial too, because we need more points to survive. However, we can all sniff the opportunity to put right the wrongs of 2016. Either Chelsea or United will fall at this stage, meaning that only one of them, plus most likely Man City, will be the only ones of the top 6 left in the competition. We have a great chance of a Wembley return, if we can get past this tricky hurdle and I think we all need that. In a season that has been full of anger, frustration and sourness among our fan base, we need to have this positive run in the cup to distract us from the struggles of the relegation battle. To lose this would deflate us massively. We had a great chance in the League Cup, and blew it against Middlesbrough. We need to make sure we don’t do that again.
After Doncaster, we travel to Leicester. A few months ago, when I discussed the home game against them, I stated that in some ways they are a ‘nothing team’. They don’t really set the world alight. They aren’t tearing teams apart, or in the middle of some glorious run firing them up the table. They have become one of those teams never in danger, but not threatening those above them either. Some games they will win, some they will lose, with no real pattern. They are just a tough game to have, as they trundle through their season. The home fixture echoed this, as we beat them 1-0 through a Luka strike, and a great save from Guaita on debut against Vardy. They were difficult to break down, they posed a threat and it was a close encounter. I expect the same in this reverse fixture. It is a game we could go there and win 1-0, but just as likely we could go there and lose 2-0, and neither would be a pulsating encounter. I am not trying to belittle Leicester here, they are a decent team with some very good players, and if I am honest, I long for a season where we are just safe and never in danger. I just find that it is hard to define them the last two seasons. They were so exciting the year they won the league, and now they are safe, but I imagine boring, which is probably why some of their fans aren’t keen on Puel. This will be a tricky tie though, and we will have to work hard, but it is very much winnable with the right mentality.
The month then ends with the visit of Man Utd under the Selhurst floodlights. A few months ago, I would have been very confident about this game. Under Mourinho, United were a mess that was only getting worse. We have already been to Old Trafford and earned a deserved point, which should have been more. At home, I would have been confident to pick up a win. They are very much a different animal now though. They are back to being a team that just keeps winning, and I fear that will be the case on this night. Ole Solskjaer is receiving a lot of praise for the work he is doing there, and I totally understand why. He understands the United ethos, he is a pupil of Sir Alex Ferguson and has brought back the familiarity that their fans had been missing. However, I also feel that he is probably the beneficiary of outside factors. Under Mourinho, United players were clearly being stifled. Their play was restricted, players just left out, and morale driven into the floor. They wanted him gone, and their performances echoed that. Now though, they are playing with the shackles off, both tactically and mentally. They have the freedom to not only express themselves, but enjoy themselves, and their results are the product of that. Also, those players need to play above themselves. They spent so long being poor under Mourinho(some of it intentionally I feel), that now they need to remind everyone how good they actually are. These are talented players and some big egos who have underperformed, and now they got what they wanted, they need to put it right. They will come to Selhurst with no fear, and it could make for a very difficult night. Their play though, will open up doors for us, because we will be able to counter, and as I have already said, that is where we thrive. Like the Liverpool game though, I am writing this one off, and anything gained is a bonus.
So, where is my mind at in regards to expected return this month? Well, we need to be aiming for 6 points and a spot in the FA Cup Quarter-Final, if we are being honest. We must be targeting wins against West Ham and Leicester, which would put us on 32 points, and almost there. If I am being realistic though, I don’t expect us to get six points, and I would be happy with 4. The struggles of others has helped ease some of the pressure in regards to relegation. Huddersfield are 13 points adrift from safety, and a 15 adrift from us. They are all but relegated, I can’t see anyway back for them, which means there are just two relegation spots we have to avoid. Fulham are 7 points from safety now, and 9 from us. This is much more doable, but when you are in mid-February and 7 points adrift, it does start to become mentally daunting. The only frustration was Cardiff’s win on Saturday, which meant we stayed just 4 clear of relegation, instead of 7. The return of Sako, as well as the arrival of Michy, will hopefully provide the injection we needed, and I think we saw a glimpse of that against Fulham. This squad should stay up on paper, in fact, it should finish comfortably in the middle of the table. As Palace fans, we know all too well that it likely means going down!! Such is the Palace way! Putting the points aside, beating Doncaster is a must. In the month of love, the romance of the FA Cup is just the tonic we all need, and I personally want it to continue. How great would it be if we could enter March just 8-10 points from that magic 40 mark, with a cup Quarter-Final to look forward to? We can but hope. Up the Palace!