West Brom 0-2 Palace
Second-half goals from wingers Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend saw Sam Allardyce’s struggling team best former Eagles manager, Tony Pulis. In victory, Crystal Palace kept consecutive clean sheets in the Premier League for the first time since April 2016 and moved three points clear of the relegation zone.
Zaha opened the scoring ten minutes after the break. Yohan Cabaye floated a perfect diagonal pass in behind Chris Brunt that Zaha immaculately brought down on his chest while on the run. The Palace man then thumped an unstoppable left-footed drive past Ben Foster in the West Brom goal.
Palace always looked the more likely to score the second goal of the match and six-minute from time, Townsend broke his barren run with a goal of winger's quality. For the seventh time in the match, Townsend tackled a West Brom player (the season high in a single Premier League for any player is 9 this term, to give some context to that number) and from the edge of his own penalty he ran the length of the field. He held off one man and skinned another before beating Foster at his near post, albeit with the aid of a slight deflection. The Football Factory in New York City, where I was watching this one, went wild, as did the way end in the Hawthorns as the images on the TV showed and back to back Premier League wins could be enjoyed for the first time since September.
After the Sunderland debacle and the whimpering defeat at Stoke, it was clear that the two-week gap before the Middlesbrough match was 'make or break'. If we were going to have any chance of survival, Allardyce had to get his wants and needs across to the players and the new signings simply had to hit the ground running – at great speed.
The Middlesbrough game saw a nervous win against poor opposition, but the signs that Luka Milivojevic, Mamadou Sakho and Patrick van Aanholt could make a difference was there. The key to Allardyce’s success at Sunderland was his January signings, and it looks like he may, finally, be on track to repeat the escape routine a year later.
As I alluded to in the Middlesbrough match report, Zaha and van Aanholt have immediately struck up a partnership. With the Dutchman’s pace on the overlap, Wilf can be a threat on the left as it becomes very difficult for teams to double up on him as, if they do, a simple pass puts van Aanholt into a great crossing position. With the aerial ability of Christian Benteke in the middle, that is unwise. This means that Wilf has now seen far more opportunities to run at just one defender and naturally he will thrive in that sort of environment. Further, this enables Townsend to play on the right where he has started to improve with each passing match vastly.
Then we have Sakho. He possesses all of the good traits of Damien Delaney. He is powerful, brave and ready to leave it all on the field to get the three points. However, with Damo giving up almost a decade on the Liverpool loanee, the added pace makes him a far more desirable option. On top of that, his first thought when receiving the ball is to look for his centre midfielders and not the head of Benteke, which enables us to build far better attacking situations. This comparison of the two is not me digging out Delaney. The Irishman has always been limited yet found a way to make it work. Sakho, however, is just on a different plain of existence when it comes to quality. Hopefully, we can find a way of keeping him beyond his loan spell, because I could watch diving header clearances when facing your own goal, like the one he pulled off in the first half, all day.
A slight nod must also be paid to James Tomkins here. He and Sakho look like they have been playing alongside each other for years and he is keeping Scott Dann out of the team as a result. He is quietly building up a little fan base among the Palace faithful.
Arguably, the most important cog needed for the faltering Crystal Palace machine was the link between the midfield and the defence. When Milivojevic signed, we all watched the videos of him on YouTube and hoped that the rave reviews from Olympiacos fans would prove to be true. In the first two matches, admittedly not against the greatest of opposition, he is so far outdoing all of my initial hopes for how good he could be. He reads the game well, he is fierce in the tackle and my word can he pass. His “no-look” through ball to Townsend (which saw Ben Foster save the winger's shot) made we want to weep with joy. It was like Iniesta had been dropped into the centre of our midfield in disguise. I will sit on my hands until I have seen how he handles a step up in the quality of opposition, but I cannot deny that I am excited about the prospects.
Just as important as Luka’s abilities is the freedom that he has afforded Jason Puncheon and Yohan Cabaye. At points in the last year, both Punch and Cabaye have had to take up a deep-lying role in and, while they gave their best, it is not where they thrive. Mainly, this is because they lack the discipline required in a positional sense. Both like to hunt in a press, and now that Luka is behind them, they can go and hunt with the security of knowing that failing to win the ball does not immediately mean disaster for the team. On top of that, their incessant pressing forcing the opposition into mistakes. West Brom time and again were rushed into kicking the ball out into touch or into dropping their passes short. Joel Ward intercepted on six occasions, all thanks to the midfield forcing a hurried pass. We have all questioned in the past whether or not Cabaye and Puncheon can play effectively together, it would appear that Luka might have finally solved that particular riddle.
None of this is rocket science, however. Having a left-footed left-back, a left-footed centre-back with pace and a defensive midfielder that can pass was exactly what we needed. This was clear to all of us in the summer, but sadly not to Alan Pardew and he ultimately paid for his oversights with his job. Allardyce saw the obvious and “un-Pardewed” the squad with the January signings. Now, as Tony Pulis said in the build-up to this match, there are signs that our “position in the league is false.”
I don’t want to run away with myself as we still have a very tough run-in ahead, but to go to West Brom who had won seven of their previous eight home games and taken 25 from a possible 27 points against teams in the bottom half of the table, and restrict them to just a single shot on target and run out such comfortable winners is a monumental step in the right direction, in spite of the fact that Pulis sides are known for going off the boil when they hit 40 points.
I also hasten to add that this is not me saying “all is forgiven, Sam Allardyce.” I still hope that his stay is brief and no amount of wins on the pitch are going to change my opinion on that.
There you go, after several paragraphs of glowing praise, I needed to temper it with a little bit of “miserable old sod.”
Up Next: Watford
We have another two weeks off, with a training camp in Morocco planned in the meantime, before another big game at Selhurst Park. A win could see the Eagles soar to as many as 6 points clear of the relegation zone. With a run of six incredibly tough games to follow against, Chelsea, Southampton, Arsenal, Leicester, Liverpool and Tottenham – it is vital that we find a way to avenge last season’s Selhurst Park defeat to the Hornets.
Come on you Palace!