Football can be a funny old game!
On Saturday, we saw the return of the Premier League, which, for ourselves, started with the visit of Everton to SelhurstPark. Now, I will be honest here and say, I feared the worst. I am sure that I will not be alone on this, in fact, I know that I am not. In Super Six, I had us down to lose 4-0! On my accumulator, I had Everton to score 2+ goals! It was not a positive mind-set for me as I made my way to the ground! Why is this? Well, a couple of reasons really. The biggest reason, was our squad availability. The week previous, I had sat there and watched as Hertha Berlin exposed our defence terribly. It was not a surprise really. In that game, our starting back line consisted of our only right back(who has been second choice for the last 18 months), our only left back, and our third and fourth choice centre backs. They were all hard working, but for most of it, pace and quality was not quite at the level that Tomkins, Sakho and AWB had provided last season. I left that game knowing that the same backline would all but definitely start the Everton game, and given the wealth of pace and attacking options that free spending Everton have in their ranks, it was a concern. We didn’t exactly look great at the other end either, with only Benteke and Wickham as our striking options. Another reason for my concern, was the Wilf saga. His desire to leave and last minute push to do so, which failed, could have easily disrupted the mentality of the squad. Transfer deadline day had also seen us fail to add the much needed right back and striker, which left us thin in those areas, and was a real blow to supporters, and I would imagine Roy & Ray. Then, if these weren’t enough, we have been poor at home for six seasons, and, since promotion, have not beaten Everton at Selhurst! All the signs pointed towards a Huddersfield-esque opening day disaster. However, this is football. No, let me be more specific, this is Palace, and we don’t ever stick to the script.
The disaster did not happen. In fact, what we actually saw was a thoroughly professional, workman like performance from our side. The first half, for the majority of it, was not one of the most exciting, by any stretch. For a while, it felt like an attack versus defence exercise, as we offered little going forward. There were a couple of heart in mouth moments, where we were perhaps a little lucky to survive. On the whole though, we saw a backline that gave it everything, protecting the clean sheet with all that they had. As the half wore on, we settled down and grew into the game. A series of corners, and a Max Meyer goal bound shot being deflected over, reminded the Toffees that they had to keep their focus at the back, and gave us something to cheer. The first half also gave us our first taste of VAR, as the entire stadium were left scratching our heads when it was announced a red card decision was being reviewed, and no one had a clue what they were talking about!
The second half was far livelier. For me, the first half felt as though we were aware of our frailties at the back, and were focused on protecting it. The second half, we played with a bit more freedom. A great bit of play from Benteke, created a great opportunity for Ayew, who found himself one on one with Pickford in the box, only for the keeper to save his effort. Ayew then made way for Zaha, greeted extremely well by our fans. It took a while for him to get his first touch, but once it came, we were given a few reminders of just how dangerous he can be in the red and blue. The most notable moment, was when he combined with Benteke, to put Meyer clean through, only for the German to fire straight at Pickford. We continued to push and work hard. A red card for Schneiderlein saw Everton down to ten for the last 12 minutes, yet they seemed to grow in stature after that(how many times does that happen against us). Yet we had another moment when a Zaha shot looked like it would be tapped in at the back post by Benteke, only for the defender to scramble it clear. The match ended 0-0, a result I would gladly have taken before the match started. Yet, while I was pleased with a clean sheet and a point, after having had two great chances to score, I left feeling a little bit gutted that we had not won!
There were some elements of the game that really need highlighting in my opinion. Let me start with the negative one, just to get it out of the way. We just suck at scoring at Selhurst. I have no idea why this is the case, but sadly, we have picked up where we left off last season on that front. Roy seemed to take the blame for our home struggles last season, and I kept on defending him, stating that failing to take chances is what is costing us. This game was a reminder of that, because both Ayew and Meyer should have scored. They didn’t, and so we missed out on three points. This needs to improve, and quickly. Aside from that though, it was a pleasing performance. The entire backline worked hard, gave it their all and can’t be faulted. The stand out of them, if I was to pick one, was Joel Ward. Coming back into the fold, having to replace the massive quality of AWB, at a time when Ward’s career has probably already peaked, he was excellent. I want to give a mention to Benteke. Did he have a great game? No. Yet, in the second half, three times he came back into our half, picked an Everton players pocket, and created a good chance for us. Also, both Ayew and Meyer’s chances, were created, courtesy of Benteke. He deserves some credit for that. I also have to highlight, that given we all know he is best with his head, we did not put a single cross anywhere near him in the box. This is one area where the club have let Benteke down, because we never, ever, play to his strength. Two of our key players are wingers, and we have Luka who can play a great ball, but never to Benteke in the box, at least not on his head. This also needs to change. Finally, I want to give big praise to Jordan Ayew. He was heavily criticised last season by many fans, and plenty complained about him signing this summer. Yet he was excellent in his sixty minutes, and was deservedly voted Man of the Match. He put in a performance that often gets overlooked by people, because it wasn’t all exciting runs and tricks like Wilf. Ayew grafted. He chased their players, harassed them, broke up the play. Time and time again, he tracked back into our half to get a tackle in, and prevent an attack. He also gave cover to PVA and Meyer on the left when it was needed. If he could have put his chance away, it would have been thoroughly deserved, and topped off a fantastic performance.
So, football is back at Selhurst, and in some ways, not much has changed. The club points machines weren’t working in the Holmesdale, the lid was taken off my bottle of coke due to the ZERO incidents of our fans throwing lids, we failed to score a goal, and once again I failed to win the Selhurst Super Draw! Yet, I walked into the ground full of fear, and left with rejuvenated hope. This result would not really register to anyone outside of our club. In fact, I am amazed it was not last on MOTD. Yet, for those of us who support the Palace, the result was one to be celebrated. I lost count of how many times I heard pundits on Friday say that we are a club in turmoil, and in big trouble. After a summer which saw one top star leave, and another desperately try to, while key areas of the squad were not filled, and talk of a boardroom rift gathered pace, it was easy for us to feel the same. So, to face a team that has spent heavily, and is tipped to break into the top six, and get a well-earned point, was just the boost we needed. It wasn’t just the fact that we got the point, and the clean sheet, that warmed the heart, but the fact that it renewed faith in the team. A day after celebrating his 72nd birthday(which is incredible), Roy masterminded the perfect set up to protect the players he had available, and it delivered. There were players out there who, let’s be honest, would never be first choice, that stood up to be counted. In Wilf, we saw that while he may wish to be elsewhere, he should still provide the goods while he is still here. Plus, as an extra boost, we have the likes of Cahill, McCarthy and Camarasa to still look forward to.
So, after moaning a lot last week, I am starting this week feeling positive. Onwards and upwards for the Palace, just 39 points needed for safety!!!