BY ANDREW MCSTEEN
Cheikhou Kouyate says he wasn’t surprised that Crystal Palace made a decent start to their Premier League campaign – with last weekend’s loss to big-spending Everton the only blemish.
The Eagles could have gone top of the table with victory in SE25.
Palace had lost seven of their last eight matches in the 2019-20 season and were tipped by some to be one of the clubs battling against the drop.
Kouyate told Premier League Productions: “We had Southampton, Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea (for our first four fixtures) and people said; ‘oh Crystal Palace, you’re not going to take any points’.
“But this is football, anything can happen, just believe in yourself and do a very, very good job, so I’m not surprised (about our opening this season) because we worked hard in the beginning and the team spirit is very, very good.
“At the end of last season we lost too many games, but we played good. Sometimes you play good but lose the game; but we never lost the team spirit. Now we are in the new season and we need to do something for the team, for the fans and for us, and we work hard for that – before Southampton we said as a team ‘we need to be ready’.”
Against Wolves at the end of last season, Kouyate, who usually plays in a defensive midfielder role, came on in place of the injured Mamadou Sakho at centre-back early on, linking up with Scott Dann and then repeated the role for the final game of the extended campaign, against Spurs.
This season, thanks to long-term injuries to central defenders James Tomkins and Gary Cahill, he has reprised the role, playing alongside Dann in the opening win against Southampton and with Sakho for the Manchester United win and Everton loss – and he credits the experienced professionals with helping him find his feet in a role which he is not too unfamiliar with.
“I’ve known the position a long time; I played it in my time at Anderlecht for maybe one year, in the Champions League against big teams, and also for my national team about 10 games or more,” said the Senegal international.
“I have a little bit of experience, but at the end of last season, I played two games at centre-back, but I have help – Dannsy [Scott Dann], Mama [Mamadou Sakho], Gaz [Gary Cahill] and Wardy [Joel Ward]. They helped me a lot and this is why it’s so easy for me to play in that position.
“I know I can do better because sometimes I forget that I am playing centre-back. Because when you play midfield you need to go every time [forward] to press, to press, to press, so sometimes Dannsy or Mama tells me ‘relax you are in the back’.
“If you are playing at the back, you need to be in control and focus 100%. I just need to say thank-you to my team-mates because they have helped me so much.”
After failing to crack the top 10 again last season, Roy Hodgson and his Eagles side are aiming to look up rather than down this time around, with Kouyate singling out his manager for praise but urging caution going forward as a club.
“This manager is very special, he tries to make all players do their best and, tactically, we need to be very, very sharp,” said the 30-year-old.
“Everything we work on a lot and you have to respect that. It’s very nice to work with him, it’s very good for the players to have him as a manager.
“We need to take it step-by-step. First of all, we need to make the team safe from relegation, and after that we can see something else and take it game-by-game. Every game is a final because no game is easy, every game is hard and if you want to beat somebody you need to work hard, you need to say to yourself: ‘I’m going to focus’.
“You need to respect all teams because we know they are all very, very good and we work for that; we know what we have, and we will just continue to work hard.”
Next up for the Eagles is Chelsea in the early kick-off tomorrow (12:30pm) at Stamford Bridge.
Kouyate cannot wait for the challenge.
“People think we are not ready, but we need some respect, we have good players, okay, not like Chelsea or Manchester City, but we need to be a little aggressive and we need to play hard.
“We played well against Everton, but it’s a fight and we need to prove we can do something. If you want to win against us, you need to do something more than us. It’s not bad for the team, the mentality is also good, people will just have to wait and see.
“Chelsea are a big team. They have good players and it’s going to be a tough game, but we’re going there to get something, we’re not going there as tourists, we are going there to work hard and to get something.”
PICTURE: KEITH GILLARD
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