Palace Rise Again – Richard Foster (Twitter: @rcfoster)
This Easter weekend saw an epic resurrection as Palace came back from two goals down to draw with Leicester.
Coming so swiftly after the Arsenal game, this match was always going to be a case of the After the Lord Mayor’s Show syndrome. Just as Sam Allardyce had warned, after the magnificent and surprising victory at Stamford Bridge a few weeks ago, the next game is usually more difficult. The 3-1 defeat to Southampton backed up the manager’s comments and he was, quite understandably, equally wary of tackling last year’s Premier League champions. In fact, both Leicester and Palace were on good form over the last six games, with only Tottenham having collected more points.
Despite the Foxes being in between the two legs of their Champions League quarter-final with Atletico Madrid, they put out a strong team and clearly meant business when Robert Huth scored after only six minutes.
That goal was the first Palace had conceded at Selhurst since the Sunderland debacle and was uncharacteristic of the recent much-improved defence. Allardyce ruefully admitted afterwards that the players had practised defending against the long throw-in, but it certainly did not show when the big German defender rose unchallenged to put Leicester ahead,
For the remainder of the first half Palace huffed and puffed but the Leicester defence stood firm and their house remained intact. There was the odd sight of goal, especially when Christian Benteke chested the ball down in the 6-yard box, but Kasper Schmeichel smothered his shot with ease.
Although it was frustrating to not be on level terms at half-time, there was no sense of panic. However, when Jamie Vardy wriggled free from his former team-mate, Jeffrey Schlupp, to curl his shot into the corner early in the second half there was a feeling that this was not going to be our day.
But those thoughts were quickly banished when Yohan Cabaye replied with a neat finish within two minutes of Leicester’s second. This was the Frenchman’s second goal in less than a week and his much-improved form has been instrumental in Palace’s renaissance. Cabaye has been freed to work further upfield by the arrival of Luka Milivojevic, who has created a solid foundation as the defensive midfielder. Whilst the excellent additions of the Serbian international and Mahmdou Sakho, who has provided the steely backbone so badly needed, have been hugely influential, the improvement in many of the existing players’ confidence and consequent performances has been transparent.
Confidence is an elusive but essential ingredient for any sportsman and the Eagles are clearly brimming with it at present. None more so than Martin Kelly, who earlier in the season had looked uncomfortable and out of place as a full-back. Against Leicester he arguably had his best game for Palace as he kept Leonardo Ulloa and Vardy relatively quiet and his sense of anticipation grew throughout the match.
Another player who has made vast strides under Allardyce is Andros Townsend, who had looked forlorn before the new manager arrived but has since kicked on. Townsend has now been directly involved in seven Premier League goals (three goals, four assists) which is his best return in a top-flight campaign. But nothing illustrated his resurgence more than the two tackles he made late in the game as he diligently tracked back to disrupt threatening Leicester attacks.
Christian Benteke has also benefited enormously with Allardyce having scored his twelfth Premier League goal. Not since Andy Johnson in 2004 has a Palace player scored more than ten. Unsurprisingly, it was a towering header from a delicious Townsend cross and his 21st in the Premier League. Out of current Premier League players only Olivier Giroud has scored more headed goals. His all-round display was impressive, as he did not allow the previously resolute Leicester defence to settle and won his usual share of aerial duels.
In his post-match comments Allardyce rightly reflected on the positive aspects of the recovery. “The point feels like a win. It’s a tremendous fight back from the players and that wouldn’t have happened when I first arrived – it just shows the change of mood of the players.”
The last month or so has been a welcome lift to the whole club and it feels very much that Palace have got their major back just in time. Safety is not yet secured but it is within grasping distance and that is something for which all fans will be grateful.