LEICESTER CITY 3
Iheanacho 49, Vardy 7, 90+4
CRYSTAL PALACE 0
BY SAM SMITH
If there is a silver lining to Crystal Palace’s recent dip in form, it is that at least they are all but mathematically safe from relegation. The victory over Bournemouth that took the Eagles above the 40-point mark that is considered to keep teams in the Premier League looks more important as each of the recent defeats have passed.
Perhaps it is that safety net that has allowed performances to regress. Palace had been so solid defensively throughout the campaign before they were hammered at Liverpool, but errors have accounted for most of the eight goals they have conceded in the last three matches.
The first two goals in this defeat against Leicester City came after mistakes from usually reliable players. This performance was particularly summed up by Mamadou Sakho falling over while attempting a Cruyff turn on the edge of his own penalty area. Harvey Barnes capitalised on the Frenchman’s error, setting up Jamie Vardy for the Foxes’ second goal.
That had come after Vicente Guaita was not commanding enough as Youri Tielemans’ cross swept along the six-yard box. The Spaniard made a desperate attempt to beat the ball away but completely missed it. Kelechi Iheanacho tapped in from close range.
At least there was no obvious error before the final goal. Palace had pushed high up the pitch in search of a consolation but instead found themselves caught on the counter-attack. The devastating Vardy culminated this resounding victory for Leicester with a dinked finish over Guaita.
The underlying short-term positive is there are no worries that Palace will drop far enough down the table to prompt genuine fears over their top-flight status. But five wins in 15 games since Christmas, accompanied by a tough end to the season and a shorter summer break before next term, present some serious long-term questions.
This is an ageing squad broken down to its bare bones. Wilfried Zaha is 28 in November but was the second-youngest player in the starting 11. Jairo Riedewald, 23, was the youngest but this was a rare appearance for the Dutchman.
At the start of the season, many would have expected Gary Cahill and Sakho to be the regular centre-back partnership. Injuries suffered by the latter mean they have started just four times together. In those games which they have shipped 12 goals and looked anything other than complementary of each other.
Cahill is often composed, is risk-averse and dominant. Sakho is often not. The former Liverpool man was once Palace’s best defender but now seems the likeliest to make way for a younger centre-back in the mould of Cahill.
Whilst generally successful, Palace’s recruitment over the last three years has been to secure short-term fixes. The profile of most signings has been experienced and versatile, capable of keeping the club in the Premier League. However, there will come a time when that will eventually catch up with the club, particularly if they continue to add players with a history of repeated injuries.
Palace can look no further than the West Bromwich Albion team Tony Pulis took to a 10th-place finish in 2016-17, only to be relegated a year later. The Welsh former Eagles boss had a squad not too dissimilar in profile to Palace’s current ranks. They had plenty of experienced individuals, played in a regimented style but had their deficiencies – particularly in attack where Salomon Rondon was the top scorer with eight goals.
The Baggies became too comfortable after seven years of adopting mid-table as home, failed to add fresh ideas and ultimately suffered the consequences. It is not inconceivable that a failure to address their own key issues could see Palace go the same way.
If the South Londoners were to drop into the Championship in the next few years, the current climate means the rebuild job required to win promotion would be far harder than the one now needed to break into the top half of the Premier League. Top-flight security is imperative.
That recently there was still an outside chance of European qualification proves Roy Hodgson has worked exceptionally with limited resources. But the Palace boss will be 73 when his contract expires next year and it is unlikely he will be offered a new one. That leaves the club at a crossroads: do they appoint a manager who adopts a similar style or do they opt for a more progressive philosophy, perhaps one with the improved academy facilities at the forefront?
A successful addressing of their long-term uncertainties will see Palace reap the benefits. Their Premier League status over the forthcoming few years will not be secured by stop-gap improvements.
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Guaita 4, Ward 5, Cahill 5, Sakho 3, Van Aanholt 5 (Mitchell 83), McArthur 5 (McCarthy 69 5), Milivojevic 5, Riedewald 6 (Kouyate 60), Ayew 5, Benteke 4 (Townsend 82), Zaha 4. Not used: Hennessey, Woods, Dann, Meyer, Pierrick.
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