Saints 1-2 Palace
Second-half goals from James McArthur and Luka Milivojevic saw Crystal Palace come from behind at St Mary's to claim all three points. After a spirited defeat against Arsenal and nearly taking away all three points from the Champions elect, Manchester City, the Eagles needed to kick 2018 off with a win and Roy Hodgson’s men did not disappoint.
The last thing the visitors would have wanted, after having just 35% and 25% possession respectively in their last two games, was a match on a heavy pitch against a team that would limit them to just 31% possession. In the first-half, it looked like the festive period had finally caught up with the South London Club, but one writes off Hodgson’s Palace at their peril. Since the former England manager arrived in SE25, Palace have won 12 points after conceding the first goal after battling back in the second-half in this one – the joint best record in the Premier League.
The Saints could have been excused for thinking that they’d be running away with the game. Shane Long should have scored after just twelve seconds but blasted over to see his 11-month goal drought continue. Crystal Palace kept out free-scoring City on New Year’s Eve, but the goal-shy penalty box diver, Long, was gifted the goal he craved after just 17 minutes. The Southampton number seven easily peeled away from Timothy Fosu-Mensah and curled Jeremey Pied’s cutback past Wayne Hennessey and into the corner.
Many Palace fans had been crying for Hodgson to switch back to a 451/433 with Zaha on the flank and that is exactly what he did for the first-half. It didn’t work. Theoretically, with Southampton flooding the midfield with technically good players, it makes sense that Roy should match them. In practice, the hosts looked fresher and hungrier in the opening half and, but for the odd Palace foray into opposition territory, fairly dominated the first forty-five minutes.
At the break, Yohan Cabaye was removed from the fray and replaced with Patrick van Aanholt who took up position on the left wing and Zaha moved alongside Christian Benteke. However, it was the introduction of Bakary Sako on 64 minutes, replacing Jeffrey Schlupp, that injected energy into the tired Palace legs and just five minutes later, Palace were level.
A cleared free-kick was clipped back into the penalty area by Andros Townsend and Benteke, arguably from an offside position, headed the ball to the back post where McArthur emphatically thumped home a left-footed volley past former Palace stopper, Alex McCarthy. The goal was the Scotland international’s five of the season, his best ever return in a single campaign.
Southampton sacrificed a midfielder for a striker in an attempt to get back into the game, but it would see them lose instead of hanging on to a point. Sako, Townsend and Zaha were running riot as their movement baffled the hosts and this opened space in the middle of the park – where the winning goal would come outpouring.
Zaha beat two on the left before switching the ball to Townsend on the right. The Palace number ten, who now has three assists and a goal in his last five games, exchanged passes with Sako before feeding Milivojevic in the middle of the goal and just over twenty-yards out. With three Palace players ahead of him, I am sure that I was not alone in groaning when I saw him shape to shoot only to be celebrating a second later. The Serbian used the Southampton defenders, who unsighted McCarthy in the goal, and curled the ball around them and into the bottom left-hand corner – the keeper never moved. His celebration was a joy to behold. After the game, Luka said that he “had not slept since missing the penalty” against City. The stress of that situation evaporated with his out pouring of emotion after the goal.
Zaha missed the chance to put the game to bed and earn Hennessey an assist late on as he cleared the crossbar after a long and swirling kick from the Wales stopper found its way into the Southampton area. At the other end, Long might have doubled his tally to level, but the ball would not sit for the struggling forward.
With the sounding of the whistle at full-time, Palace leapfrogged their opponents, climbing to the dizzying heights of 14th place. After giving every other team a 7-game head start, the feat is nothing short of incredible and, but for Pep turning City into potential Invincibles, Hodgson would be a shoe-in for Manager of the Year.
The Revitalised Bakary Sako
For turning Sako into something approaching a Premier League player should see Hodgson win the Manager of the Year award alone. Any Palace fan that tells you they hadn’t consigned the Mali man to the scrapheap already is a liar. Now, I get excited when I see him coming on. The turnaround has been phenomenal.
Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that he is now the full package, but he is doing enough to give us an option from the bench and if he can continue to play with the confidence that he has shown then maybe he can push for a starting role as the season goes on. In the meantime, fair play to Roy and his coaching staff for getting him playing and as for Bakary, it is great to see him playing with a smile on his face.
The Revitalised James McArthur
This time last year, I thought that McArthur’s career as a Premier League footballer was coming to an end. When Jimmy returned from injury, he looked overweight and yards off the pace, and it did not improve over a significant period of time. I was certain that he would be joining Rangers this January.
Suddenly, McArthur looks back to his 2015 levels, maybe even surpassing them, and is going to play a big part in keeping us up this season. He already has five goals and will score more if he continues to find himself in the positions that he has so far this term.
Once more, he is one of the most underrated players in the league.
Man of the Match: Luka Milivojevic
How do I pick between McArthur, Townsend or Milivojevic? All three were brilliant. The reason that I give it to Luka is for the penalty miss against City. For him to come back just 48 hours later, put in that sort of shift, and score such a sublime goal means that you quite simply have to doff your cap to him.
Further, the passion on the man’s face and then worshipping the travelling support by bowing – what a hero.
Up Next: Brighton
Roy has already hinted that he will make changes, but I can only imagine Brighton will be approaching the game with a similar view.
On a personal level, after missing the league game as I was on honeymoon, I am delighted that I get to see us play them at the Amex this season before they resume their rightful place back in the division below us next season.
Come on you Palace!