BY SAM SMITH
If Roy Hodgson had any doubts about handing Eberechi Eze just a third Premier League start, the Crystal Palace midfielder needed just 22 minutes against Leeds United to ensure they disappeared.
Eze has had to be patient to earn starts this season – instead his appearances have largely been as a second-half substitute. Hodgson’s preference for Jeffrey Schlupp in most games had even led to some Eagles supporters fearing that the summer signing would grow frustrated by a lack of chances.
The Palace boss had insisted that Eze dropping out of the starting 11 following the heavy 4-0 defeat against Chelsea in early October was not a slight on his individual performance. Jeffrey Schlupp has performed well this season and the biggest compliment you could offer the Ghanaian is that he has made being replaced by Eze a tough decision for Hodgson.
But just midway through the first half on Saturday Eze had proved that he is ultimately the better option on the left of midfield.
It was the 22-year-old’s corner from which Scott Dann opened the scoring against the Whites. Eze’s delivery was a vast improvement on the corners taken by Luka Milivojevic and James McCarthy in recent years.
And not content with a maiden top-flight assist, he soon had a first goal.
The former Millwall youngster was fouled by Robin Koch, stepped up to take the resultant free-kick and whipped the ball beyond Illan Meslier via the crossbar from 25 yards. It was a goal that deserved a jubilant Selhurst Park crowd.
Not since Yohan Cabaye have Palace had a player capable of such excellent dead-ball deliveries. At first, it seems the product of natural talent. Perhaps that is partly the case, but Hodgson revealed that it is a skill to which the Greenwich-born youngster pays particular attention.
“He works very hard in the training sessions and takes them as seriously as he should,” said the Palace chief. “He practices a lot after the sessions, in particular his set plays.
“He produced two goals from set plays. That’s a product of his work on the training ground, which I’m sure was taking place long before he joined us.”
Eze’s attacking talents are obvious. He could have withdrawn from the match on 25 minutes content that he would still have been recognised as its most influential component by the end.
His link-up play with Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew was superb. A driving run ended with a powerful strike swerving just wide of the post midway through the first half. A second goal would have capped a remarkable performance.
But his defensive work was also impressive. The wide midfielders supporting their full-back is a key element to Hodgson’s 4-4-2 system, and Eze performed those duties admirably.
His five tackles were the most of any Palace player and only Nathaniel Clyne matched his four interceptions. From Leeds, nobody made as many tackles and only Koch’s six interceptions were superior.
It is not bad for a player who many felt was not defensively adept enough to play for the former England manager.
You get the sense that watching Eze progress in a Palace shirt will be reminiscent to witnessing Zaha develop into one of the club’s greatest-ever players.
That will naturally lead to interest from bigger clubs, but the South Londoners will surely make a huge profit on the initial £15million they paid Queens Park Rangers in the summer.
Eze seems as personable as he is good at football. Palace were well aware of his ability to positively impact a game, but his signing also included vast background checks. Hodgson has been happy with the result.
“He’s a very likeable character – he’s quick to smile, quick to laugh,” said the 73-year-old. “He gives the impression that he enjoys his work as a professional footballer and that nothing’s too hard for him.
“We signed him because we knew all these things about him before he actually stepped through the door.
“What he’s done since stepping through the door is actually prove that the information we had about him was correct.”
And, despite the criticisms aimed his way for not always playing Eze, Hodgson deserves praise for his surprising decision to start him against a Leeds side instead of the more conservative option in Schlupp.
There were caveats to his limited action. An injury in pre-season held Eze back. In his first start – an EFL Cup tie against Bournemouth – he still appeared to be unfit.
But now, fully fit and having provided evidence that he fits seamlessly into this Palace team, there is no way that Eze can once again be pulled from the regular line-up.
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