By Stuart Austen
Crystal Palace have a problem.
Having, dare I say, established themselves in the Premier League since their last promotion in 2013, the south Londoners find themselves at something of a crossroads. Now in a record seventh season in the top flight, they are in danger of becoming a victim of their own success. For many fans, mere survival each season is becoming less special. For those of us Seventies kids, who were brought up on the sparsely populated terraces of the early 1980s, seven successive seasons among the elite represents some kind of hedonism. However, like many clubs before us we are now under increasing pressure to go to the Holy Grail-like ‘next level’. The problem is, how can that even begin to be achieved if the majority of fans don’t get to see us win a game?
In short, Palace have failed to solve the problem of winning matches at home. They reached the Premier League as a counter-attacking team, moulded in the image former manager – and Wolves striker – Dougie Freedman. Despite the wage bill going through roof, the team is essentially still the same. Yes, we have better players, particularly in defence, but we remain a side that will struggle to break teams down.
In three of the last four seasons our Selhurst stats alone would have seen us relegated in 18th place. It’s a fact totally at odds with the words of opposition managers and players every other week. Apparently Selhurst Park is such a ‘difficult’ place to go – and that’s not just physically getting to the ground. You must work hard to get anything there, we hear. Yet nobody really seems to have too much trouble in the end.
You could argue the promotion team was better going forward than those now in red and blue. We had Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie either side of a genuine goalscorer in Glenn Murray that could win games home and away. Today, Zaha carries the Palace attack virtually single-handedly. The love affair may be almost over with our talisman seeking new, greener pastures but he remains our best player and single matchwinner. Andros Townsend, for all his hard work and occasional spectacular goals, does not either provide or score enough. And as for the main striker? Well four goals in 68 games over the last four seasons suggests Christian Benteke might be in the wrong category when it comes to Fantasy Football. To think, we sold Murray to Bournemouth for £4m. Thanks, Pards.
Away from home, the pace of Zaha and Townsend, allied to the midfield industry of captain Luka Milivojevic, James McArthur and Jeff Schlupp, has proved more than enough for a number of Premier League heavyweights. The last team to win a league game at The Etihad, Old Trafford, The Emirates and Anfield anyone?
Wolves, too, are an excellent counter-attacking side, better than Palace, and they find a way to win at Molineux as well. Their reward has been a return to Europe and an impressive passage to the group stage. How much that affects Sunday’s outcome remains to be seen, although evidence so far this season suggests Nuno’s team, like several before them, are struggling to combine the continental a la carte with their British bread and butter.
Suffice to say, though, if Wolves play their natural game and sit back on Sunday, inviting Palace to attack, they will have similar success in SE25 to last season, because the Eagles will soon run out of ideas.