BY SAM SMITH
As he stood on the touchline conducting post-match interviews after Crystal Palace dismantled Manchester United last weekend, Roy Hodgson had many reasons to sport the smile etched across his face.
The Eagles boss has rekindled their form, he has key players returning to full fitness and, should the remainder of the transfer window go the club’s way, will have a strong squad capable of ensuring victories like the one at Old Trafford are not a one-off.
Yes, Palace won that fixture last season, too. But the 2-1 victory against the Red Devils in August 2019 was not as dominant, it was not as imposing and at times the South Londoners rode their luck.
There was no need for luck this time. Instead, Palace limited their opponents to few chances and the front four of Jeffrey Schlupp, Jordan Ayew, Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend took United’s defence apart piece by piece. This was the prototype Hodgson performance – defensively resolute, effective in possession and devastating on the counter-attack.
At one point on Saturday evening Palace sat at the summit of the Premier League alongside tomorrow’s opponents Everton. It was only for a few hours, but two wins from the opening two matches is the club’s best start to a league campaign since 2006. That is perhaps not the greatest omen – given that then-manager Peter Taylor’s side eventually underwhelmed following a big-spending summer, finishing 12th in the Championship, but it is a success for Hodgson nonetheless.
It is now easy to forget that there was plenty of apprehension when the fixtures were released. Southampton entered this campaign having ended last term well, while Manchester United and Everton are two teams Palace have struggled against since promotion in 2013. Chelsea and rivals Brighton made up the first five games.
That Palace ended last season so poorly, only arresting a seven-match losing run with the final-day draw against Tottenham Hotspur, speaks volumes for the turnaround Hodgson has overseen. Some more pessimistic fans may have snatched at six points from the opening five games had they been offered them in pre-season.
There were swathes of supporters who even felt the 73-year-old could take Palace no further during that dismal run and that someone like Eddie Howe, who departed Bournemouth, should take over.
But the change in Hodgson’s persona has been noticeable in each of his media appearances since the beginning of pre-season – he seems happier and more relaxed.
The most striking difference from a few months ago is that there appears to be a newfound energy and confidence in Palace’s players. That has been epitomised no better than in the performances of Zaha, who captained the team at Old Trafford.
For the first time in over a year Zaha took control of the game. Excluding shoot-outs, his second-half penalty was the first time he had taken a spot-kick in a competitive game. The confidence to take on that responsibility should not go unnoticed.
His second goal, a swivel around Victor Lindelof and a powerful drive into the corner, was sublime.
This display was reminiscent of the fearless version of the 27-year-old who would regularly win matches with sheer individual brilliance during the first half of Hodgson’s reign.
Not only is Zaha now only one goal away from matching his tally from last season just two games into this campaign, but, if you factor in pre-season, the forward has scored six times in six outings.
The woes of last season, when Zaha seemed desperately shy of confidence, lacked service from his team-mates and often let his own frustrations boil over, seem to be in the past. Being given the free role in the 4-4-2 formation alongside Jordan Ayew also suits him.
Given how high Everton’s full-backs play, in particular Lucas Digne, that will once again be an area Palace and Zaha look to exploit – just how they benefitted from the space vacated by Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Luke Shaw last Saturday.
There is no doubt that Palace’s defence will be tested more than they were against the Red Devils, who failed to exploit Mamadou Sakho’s lack of match fitness. Everton have already scored six times this season and striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin has four of them.
A defeat to the Toffees should not dent Palace’s confidence, nor should it resurface criticisms of Hodgson. Six points from three games would still be an excellent start to the season. There is still business to be done in the transfer market and there are key players still to return to full fitness.
On the other hand, a victory and maximum points from a tricky opening three matches would further silence those who so vehemently voiced their frustration, while also placing that seven-game losing run well in the past.
Wilfried Zaha. Should his excellent form continue, this may just be a cut and paste job every week. He was superb against United, first scoring a penalty before thrashing home the game-clinching goal.
When Donny van de Beek halved the deficit with 10 minutes to play, you feared his side might grab a late equaliser. So, when Zaha controlled Tyrick Mitchell’s pass, spun around Lindelof and found the corner of David de Gea’s goal, there was a sigh of relief from the Palace faithful.
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