BY SAM SMITH
If the demand in the aftermath of Crystal Palace’s disappointing 3-2 defeat against West Ham United was for immediate improvement, then Roy Hodgson’s side have responded emphatically over the last seven days.
First, there was a 1-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Selhurst Park on Saturday. Then on Tuesday, an almost heroic defensive performance in the second half preserved a 2-1 lead earned during the opening period.
Only a terrible period of form from now until the end of the season – in tandem with one or more of the bottom three experiencing a dramatic, almost implausible improvement – will drag Palace into a relegation battle from which they should be keen to stay away. Both scenarios seem unlikely.
The caveat is that Palace have history for such a downturn under Hodgson. Take the seven successive defeats only halted by a draw with Tottenham Hotspur on the final day of last season.
There were two wins in 11 games only recently.
But realistically, Palace only need a minimum of two victories to essentially stay away from the relegation battle come the end of the season. That would take the South Londoners on to 35 points. Fulham, who are 18th, would need 21 points from their remaining 18 games to catch up.
Those two successes will need to come soon because the fixtures from March to May are hardly kind to the Eagles. Six points should also clearly be a minimum target. Hodgson and his players will expect more, especially with the momentum that the two most recent performances will have provided.
Sections of the Palace support are correct to point out there is actually a smaller gap between the club and the top six, as opposed to the bottom three. That not only shows just how tight the Premier League table is, but also just how imperative both victories were this week.
An excellent Eberechi Eze goal was enough to navigate past Wolves. A switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation was key, and allowed Palace’s attack more freedom than the rigid 4-4-2 deployed for most of the campaign.
Newcastle went ahead on Tuesday through Jonjo Shelvey, but Palace impressively battled back before half-time – despite returning to that 4-4-2 shape. Their defending in the second half – particularly through Nathaniel Clyne and Scott Dann – was a vast improvement on recent months.
Clyne made an excellent tackle to prevent Callum Wilson from bearing down on goal, while Dann threw his body in front of a powerful Allan Saint-Maximin drive.
Both goals came through players who had been brought into the line-up – proving the depth that Hodgson now possesses. Jairo Riedewald thumped in a fantastic equaliser from 25 yards, before Gary Cahill headed in Eze’s free-kick.
It was Cahill who had urged his side to improve after their defeat against West Ham. The former Chelsea man wanted his team-mates to “stop wasting halves of football”. Against Newcastle, Palace were very good in both periods.
“I said after the West Ham game that if you get a few wins then it breeds confidence,” said the former England international. “All of a sudden the training is enjoyable, going back to the hotel is enjoyable and going back home is enjoyable.
“It just breeds confidence. We deserved the win against Wolves and we did well against Newcastle. It’s about gaining momentum. We’ve had a few freak results go against us where we have shipped in quite a few goals.
“It was important to get back to being tight and defending well.”
Despite having few forays forward in the second half, Palace could have beaten Newcastle by more. Andros Townsend somehow struck wide from close range in the second half.
“In the second half, we lost our way a little bit in terms of the passing,” said Hodgson. “I’m afraid that’s part and parcel of being in the Premier League when you need points and you’re leading – unfortunately caution takes precedence over trying to show the courage and confidence to play.”
That speaks to a more conservative, but necessary, approach to improve results. Especially after how easily the Eagles were taken apart by the likes of Liverpool and Aston Villa.
There will, of course, need to be evidence that Palace have used that momentum and are finally over the dreadful run they experienced between Christmas and the New Year period. Their upcoming fixtures present their most favourable period before the end of the campaign.
Almost remarkably there is still scope for this to be one of their most successful seasons at Premier League level.
Nathaniel Clyne. Seems to be fully fit again after a difficult spell not playing at Liverpool. His form recently ranks him among some of the best right-backs in the division.
Riedewald’s powerful strike turned the momentum of the game and set Palace on their way to winning through Cahill’s header soon after.
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