Crystal Palace’s chance to prove their quality


Everyone saw it coming, but no one could stop it — the moment Conor Gallagher broke the Eagles’ hearts.

As the midfielder swivelled to evade the challenge of Jean-Philippe Mateta on the edge of the box, there was only one place where that ball was ending up: a powerful drive into the top corner proved too much for Vicente Guaita and saw Gallagher consign Crystal Palace, his former club, to defeat right at the death.

There was pandemonium amongst Chelsea players, staff and supporters alike, but the outright refusal of Gallagher — who spent 2021/22 on loan at Selhurst Park — to celebrate demonstrated just what a cruel moment it was. The mercilessness of fate ensured it would be Gallagher who scored that decisive goal, and that it would be Palace who, once again, surrendered a positive result late on in the contest with their second last-minute sucker-punch conceded in as many home games.

Sitting 17th in the table heading into this round of matches, with just one win from their opening seven, it has been a trying start to the campaign for the Eagles, a thud back down to earth after a largely positive end to last season on both league and cup fronts. It’s still far too early for concrete concerns to creep in but, the longer this goes on, the more they’ll do just that.

The obvious caveat to their struggle for form thus far is the fact that four of Palace’s seven league encounters have been against top six sides (Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and then Chelsea). Were it not for the postponement of the fixture against Manchester United, originally scheduled for 11 September, they would’ve been one away from the full set.

The difficulty experienced by Patrick Vieira’s side in attempting to generate any kind of momentum over such a tricky run of games is understandable. Having said that, it can be argued that Palace haven’t helped themselves — after failing to lay a glove on Arsenal, they threw away leads at both Anfield and the Etihad before succumbing to Chelsea’s comeback last weekend — but these weren’t matches they necessarily expected anything from.

Aside from their top six encounters, the Eagles have had three purportedly ‘easier’ games thus far, first securing victory over an out-of-sorts Aston Villa before generally uninspiring draws with Brentford and Newcastle United pointed towards a possibly results-induced lack of cutting edge and confidence.

Performances haven’t been perfect in the slightest, but it’s undeniable that the strenuousness of Palace’s early fixtures has contributed to their stuttering start to the campaign. Now, however, they are approaching the beginning of a kinder period which grants them ample opportunity to turn things around.

Starting this weekend and running up until the World Cup break in mid-November, Palace face, in order: Leeds United, Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton, Southampton, West Ham United and Nottingham Forest — that’s five of the current bottom six (the Eagles are, of course, the other one) and the two sides in Leeds and Everton who finished 17th and 16th respectively last season.

A hellish run of games is giving way to a more than heavenly chance to restore some parity to Palace’s campaign. Positive results simply must now follow, else Vieira and his side could well find themselves in a spot of bother come Qatar’s interruption.

But has there been enough in their performances up to this point to suggest the Eagles have it in them to dust themselves off and kick on from here?

Tactically, Vieira is doing his all to generate some form — and points — for his side: his line-up against Chelsea was assertively attacking, with both Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise selected alongside Cheick Doucoure in midfield, and they have generally not been afraid to go at opposing teams regardless of their quality, even Liverpool and City.

This approach implies Vieira’s frustration at the lack of chances Palace are creating at the moment. Indeed, having so far failed to win all four matches in which they have scored first, concerns must surround not just the Eagles’ ability to grind results out but to kill games off, too.

Although the South London outfit have taken the third fewest shots per game in the league (10.7), above only recently promoted Fulham (10.5) and AFC Bournemouth (6.4), this is no drop-off whatsoever from last season’s figure (10.8) when goalscoring was generally no problem at all. Therefore, the issue appears to lie in Palace’s ability to register high-quality efforts.

Again, this is something which may well mend itself as the fixture list gets kinder, but Vieira’s side have not shown the levels of fluidity and incision of which the ability of their forward players would suggest they are capable, instead reliant on moments of individual brilliance from, more often than not, Wilfried Zaha.

The good news is that Palace undoubtedly have the individual quality to turn things around in the final third. A forward line combining the aforementioned Eze and Olise with the likes of Jordan Ayew, Odsonne Edouard and Zaha — who’s been in fine form so far, with four goals to his name already — is bound to come good at some point, while Vieira is a manager with the tactical acumen to help them flourish in that regard.

Of course, no game is easy in the Premier League, but coming up against some of the division’s weakest defences one after another is a warm invitation to get the goals flowing; they won’t have many better opportunities to do just that than the run of fixtures upon which they are about to embark.

Palace need confidence restored, because late concessions and a blunt attack would indicate that it’s lacking. With the quality in their squad, the Eagles could yet turn the tide and perhaps emulate, or even improve upon, their successes of last season, but only once they get back to playing with the same gusto and self-assurance they displayed in 2021/22.

Getting this next stage of the campaign off to a strong start against Jesse Marsch’s Leeds on Sunday is imperative, not just in beginning to generate momentum for the games which lie ahead but also in eliciting an assured response following last weekend’s kick in the teeth at Selhurst Park.

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