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Palace restart where they left off – as fine form fuels talk of European football next season

AFC BOURNEMOUTH 0
CRYSTAL PALACE 2
Milivojevic 12, Ayew 23

BY SAM SMITH

There was a Jordan Ayew goal, a clean sheet and a well-drilled, hard-working performance by Crystal Palace. If this victory over AFC Bournemouth is the so-called ‘new normal’ then it instead looks rather familiar for Roy Hodgson’s side.

The Eagles had won their final three matches before the suspension of the football season in March. Ayew had struck the solitary goal in two of those games. They had not conceded since Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored Everton’s third in a 3-1 defeat for Palace on February 8. Structured and cohesive performances, the prototype of any Hodgson team, were a regular theme.

The intervening three-month break – filled with anxiety and uncertainty – will have derailed most of that momentum. Hodgson and his squad deserve great credit for the way they began Project Restart exactly how they finished before the country went into lockdown.

Palace were fitter and sharper than Bournemouth at Vitality Stadium. A sumptuous free-kick by Luka Milivojevic gave goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale little chance of keeping the ball out. The pace on the strike meant the former AFC Wimbledon loanee could only parry the shot against the crossbar and into the net. The Serb had also scored direct from a set-piece at Bournemouth in a 2-2 draw two seasons ago.

From then, the Eagles were comfortable. They defended narrowly and were compact, offering very few avenues for the Cherries to test Vicente Guaita. It was not until a tame Nathan Ake header midway through the second half that the Spaniard was forced into a save.

The only scare was when Gary Cahill avoided a red card early in the second half for a tackle with which his follow through connected high on Josh King’s ankle. Palace will argue that Lewis Cook was also fortunate to not be sent off when his elbow caught Cheikhou Kouyate late on. At times, this was a feisty affair.

The last month may have offered the coaching staff a chance to iron out a few attacking flaws that once existed. There were several patterns of play which seemed well-rehearsed and none more so than the move which led to the second goal.

Wilfried Zaha received the ball on the left and played an excellent pass to the over-lapping Patrick van Aanholt. The Dutchman barely needed to take a glimpse at the support in the penalty area to pick out Ayew. The Ghanaian had withdrawn from his right-wing position and moved centrally, enabling him to be on hand to sidefoot the ball into the corner of the goal.

That was Ayew’s ninth goal of a wonderful season for the once maligned forward. It is his best return in a Premier League campaign and is a remarkable turnaround on the single goal he scored while on loan with the South Londoners last term. Both his tenacity and his ability to keep the ball in tight situations are also great assets.

Crystal Palace’s Jordan Ayew scores his side’s second goal of the game past Bournemouth goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale during the Premier League match at the Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth.

Before this game Hodgson had praised the work produced by the club’s medical and fitness staff since the players returned to training a little over a month ago. There was no evidence of tiredness, they only used three of their permitted five substitutions.

However, Milivojevic appeared to take a kick and was replaced by James McCarthy. Christian Benteke, who was excellent, was taken off as a precaution. A hamstring injury has plagued the Belgian for over a year. Palace will hope to have both back fit for Wednesday’s trip to Liverpool.

This result sets up the Eagles for a late, previously unexpected run at European qualification for next season. Sitting on 42 points means the South Londoners are now all but mathematically safe from relegation and can begin to look up the Premier League table rather than down.

Captain Milivojevic, usually coy and conservative in interviews, said Palace playing in the Europa League next season was “possible” when asked during the BBC’s post-match coverage. Four points separate the Selhurst Park outfit with fifth-place Manchester United. Manchester City’s ban from Europe next season – pending appeal – opens an extra place.

There was, of course, pre-Christmas talk of Palace hitting such heights before they went on a poor run that saw them linger above the bottom three earlier this year. Hodgson will no doubt opt to manage expectations, but their remaining fixtures present a chance to have a successful run. The current form, four consecutive wins, is their best since promotion in 2013.

A visit to champions-elect Liverpool on Wednesday puts that success in danger. However, given how well organised and how difficult Palace will be to break down means they will provide just as big a challenge for Jurgen Klopp’s side.

Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Guaita 6, Ward 6, Dann 7, Cahill 7, Van Aanholt 7, McArthur 7 (Riedewald 89), Milivojevic 7 (McCarthy 65 6), Kouyate 6, Ayew 7, Benteke 7 (Townsend 76), Zaha 6. Not used: Hennessey, Tavares, Sakho, Mitchell, Meyer, Pierrick.

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