DERBY COUNTY 1
BY SAM SMITH
Luka Milivojevic’s desperate kick-out at Tom Huddlestone midway through this entirely forgettable FA Cup third round tie was just the culmination of such a gruelling period for Crystal Palace.
Frustration eventually took its toll on the Eagles captain. Milivojevic has played every minute of the last 12 Palace fixtures and has only missed 104 minutes this season due to suspension and a late substitution in his side’s 2-0 defeat against Manchester City.
Factor in that the 28-year-old missed only three of Palace’s 45 fixtures in all competitions last season and played the full 90 minutes in all but two of his 42 appearances, and you conclude that the three-match ban he will receive for his red card against Derby County will be a welcome break.
Milivojevic was actually fortunate not to see red at Southampton on December 28. Then, his dissent earned him a yellow card but his refusal to be spoken to by referee Andy Madley could have earned him further punishment.
In that match and then Palace’s visit to Norwich City on New Year’s Day, the midfielder produced performances laden with tiredness.
As a player who plays right on the edge of the laws of the game, it is a surprise it has taken three years for Milivojevic to be sent off for the Eagles. But there is an argument that Milivojevic should not have been playing in this tie – which Palace lost through former player Chris Martin’s scrappy first-half goal.
The Serbia international has appeared to need a rest for a long time. His recent performances are evidence of a player who is a shadow of his former self – the all-action, tough and technically very adept midfielder who was undroppable for two years.
Boss Roy Hodgson will claim that he has nobody else to fill the void, but his refusal to rest Milivojevic has led to a sending-off borne out of frustration and now the former England manager will have no choice but to find a replacement.
Without Milivojevic, Palace produced one of their best performances of the season away to West Ham earlier this season. James McArthur and James McCarthy played superbly in midfield as Jordan Ayew’s late goal earned them three points.
It is not just Milivojevic who has seemed tired recently. It was a rare defensive error that allowed Martin to slide in front of Martin Kelly to meet a cross that should have been cleared before it reached the forward, who spent a period on loan at Selhurst Park under Dougie Freedman.
That was the only goal of the game and Palace barely looked capable of responding.
It had appeared the same way against Norwich until Connor Wickham scored following a rare Palace attack. Against the Saints, the Eagles were the inferior side and were lucky to draw.
The South Londoners have had to play through the festive period with a depleted squad and there were seven players absent for this game.
Milivojevic’s red card plus further injuries suffered by Max Meyer and Jairo Riedewald could take that number to 10 for Palace’s fixture against Arsenal next weekend.
That means Hodgson could have just 13 first-team players available should they not sign anyone this week.
Palace did submit a full 25-man squad to the Premier League at the start of the season but that had to include rookie goalkeepers Joe Tupper and Dion-Curtis Henry as they were over 21. In truth, the Eagles have had to play the first half of the campaign with just 23 players.
Hodgson’s lack of rotation has not helped a forever tiring group of players, but that is only a result of poor recruitment.
A club that had been in the top-flight for six years before this season should not be entering a new campaign with only 23 players. Some of those, such as loanee Victor Camarasa, have scarcely played under the 72-year-old. That, in theory, also decreases the options available to a manager whose success suggests he deserves better from those above.
Even Riedewald, who has been playing at left-back as a result of the injury crisis, is hardly a favourite of the Palace boss. The Dutchman did not play a league game last season and was surplus to requirements in the summer.
Hodgson could have rotated for this game.
There were academy products available who could have been used. Brandon Pierrick was the only one to feature from the start and impressed early on before quickly fading, but Sam Woods and Nya Kirby are more than capable of performing well at this level.
Instead, the likes of Cheikhou Kouyate, McArthur and Ayew only clocked up more minutes.
Whether the Eagles properly strengthen this month will define their season.
They sit a healthy ninth in the Premier League, largely down to the work of Hodgson, but in a table so tight there is no certainty that a squad so stretched by injuries cannot suffer a capitulation.
Crystal Palace (4-1-2-3): Hennessey 5, Kelly 5, Cahill 5, Kouyate 5, Riedewald 5 (Woods 76), Milivojevic 4, Meyer 5 (McArthur 39, 5), McCarthy 6, Pierrick 6 (Tomkins 73), Wickham 4, Ayew 5. Not used: Henderson, Kirby, McGregor, Daly.