BY SAM SMITH
A banner adorned the gates of Selhurst Park’s Holmesdale Road Stand in the build-up before Crystal Palace’s 2-0 defeat to Manchester United. “End the season by starting careers. Play the youth,” the display read.
It was a clear message to Roy Hodgson, but one that was ultimately ignored by the Crystal Palace boss. Come an hour before kick-off, it was largely the same core of the 72-year-old’s elder trustees who were listed in the Eagles’ starting line-up against Manchester United.
Sections of the Palace support have grown frustrated at the lack of opportunities afforded to the club’s young players. Hodgson has regularly named teams where the average age is more than 30. The likes of Vicente Guaita, Joel Ward, Gary Cahill and James McArthur – all 30 or older – have been regular features this season.
Wilfried Zaha is only four months short of his 28th birthday but was once again the youngest starter against his former side.
Meanwhile, the younger first teamers Jairo Riedewald and Max Meyer started on the bench – the latter played no part.
Academy pair Sam Woods and Brandon Pierrick were unused substitutes. Young left-back Tyrick Mitchell was only afforded the final 10 minutes due to an injury suffered by Patrick van Aanholt.
There is an argument to be made that, with Palace safe from relegation, there is little risk in playing an untested youngster.
Given Van Aanholt’s injury, there is no reason why Mitchell cannot start the final two fixtures, especially given how well the 20-year-old coped against the Red Devils’ attacking trio in the final stages of this match.
Hodgson will argue that the likes of Riedewald and Meyer have not done enough when given chances to play, and that the academy graduates are only on the bench out of necessity due to a small squad. But given his side’s woeful form of late and the worrying dips in form of key players, the former England boss should not be averse to providing further opportunities.
In matches against Liverpool, Burnley, Leicester City and Aston Villa, Hodgson’s usually dependable side were poor. They were lethargic and created little in attack. In the only other defeat during the five-game losing streak, against Chelsea, the Eagles were much better and were unlucky not to take a point.
In fairness, the first half display followed the pattern of the latter. Zaha was a threat throughout, he tested David de Gea and headed over in a lively first half. The Ivorian also had a strong argument for a penalty when he was felled by Victor Lindelof – but referee Graham Scott and VAR felt otherwise.
The visitors went straight up the other end and scored through Marcus Rashford, whose feint fooled three Palace defenders and allowed the striker to stroke the ball into an unguarded corner of the goal.
When VAR was introduced to the Premier League at the start of the season, it was billed as eradicating controversy. Jordan Ayew’s equaliser early in the second half would have stood had VAR official Simon Hooper not needed two minutes to draw various lines on a freeze frame just to conclude that the nail on the big toe of the Ghanaian’s left foot gave him the clear advantage to score with his right foot.
Marry the incidents in this game with the ruling out of Mamadou Sakho’s goal against Aston Villa – when the ball struck the shoulder of the defender but was given as handball – and you conclude that the technology is instead enhancing controversy.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side took full advantage, Anthony Martial rounded off an excellent move with a clinical finish. Bruno Fernandes had struck the post slightly prior.
Other than Ayew’s disallowed goal, there was little in the way of a response by the South Londoners. When they go a goal down, Palace tend to lose. They lack attacking impetus and are the second-lowest scorers in the division. Their record at Selhurst makes them the lowest scorers of home goals.
Jeffrey Schlupp was introduced late on and injected some much-needed pace, but only Zaha tested De Gea in the final few minutes.
If anything, this was further proof of the need for younger, more attack-minded reinforcements this summer. The Eagles desperately need a creator and a finisher. The former could be Meyer, but the German remained on the bench, has flattered to deceive in his few opportunities and his future is unclear.
But with two matches remaining, Palace safe from relegation and the need for an urgent rebuild of an ageing squad, there is little better time than now for Hodgson to provide more chances to those on the fringes of the Eagles team.
Palace: Guaita 5, Ward 5, Dann 6, Sakho 5, Van Aanholt 5 (Mitchell 83), McCarthy 5 (Riedewald 83), Milivojevic 5, McArthur 6 (Schlupp 72), Townsend 5, Ayew 5, Zaha 6. Not used: Hennessey, Kelly, Woods, Kouyate, Meyer, Schlupp, Pierrick.
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