Review by Richard Foster (Twitter: @rcfoster)
When the Premier League’s current hottest team meets the club that has the worst record over the last couple of months, there is surely only one result. Indeed, the bookies were pretty convinced that Tottenham would continue their impressive run of form, having won their last six matches before drawing with Fiorentina in the Europa Cup, and Palace were priced at 5-1 to prevail. Even the most optimistic of Eagles fans were merely hoping for a decent performance to stop the rot that had set in since before Christmas, rather than harbouring any expectations of getting a positive result.
However, this is the FA Cup and it still retains a certain type of magic, and one that the manager and fans alike are determined to enjoy. Although much of its former lustre has worn off in recent times, with weakened sides and more pressing priorities seeming to devalue the oldest cup competition in the world, the FA Cup is fast becoming the focus for Palace’s season. And so, the team which had risen to a heady second in the table wowing the critics, were beaten by a side that had plummeted down the table from 5th to 13th, without a league victory in over two months.
Tottenham began the game with the sort of confident approach that was to be expected. Palace were distinctly on the back foot for much of the first half, allowing too much space in midfield, where Son Heung-ming and Dele Alli began to look dangerous as they ran at the over-worked defence. Midway through the half the Spurs pair combined to set up Alli, who curled a shot against the far post. This then rolled along the goal line to hit the other post, before the alert Joel Ward cleared it to safety. If that had crossed the line, as it looked destined to do, then things would have been all so different. But these are the fine margins upon which football is decided.
Just before half-time, Wilf Zaha broke the shackles that had been placed on him for much of the first half, and drew the Spurs defence towards him. This was the moment that Wilf showed his increasing maturity. He did not try to shoot or weave past a couple more defenders, but set up the rampaging Martin Kelly to fire home past Michel Vorm, who was badly exposed at his near post. Cue wild celebrations amidst the disbelieving but joyous 5,000 travelling fans, including the injured Jason Puncheon who was in the midst of the throng – which he described in a talkSPORT interview as “a wonderful experience.”
The fact that the goal scorer and ultimate match-winner was Kelly was as surprising as it was welcome. This was his first for Palace, and almost five years since his last goal when he scored for Liverpool. The fact that the right back was so far forward was a sign that Palace were growing in confidence. The second half started with Spurs upping the pace but Hennessey was in good form. Having saved a Harry Kane free-kick in the first half, he denied the Tottenham captain with a fine stop. Scott Dann was – as ever – a rock in the centre, repelling all that an increasingly desperate Spurs threw at him. Spurs began to misplace passes and Zaha started to threaten, although Emmanuel Adebayor was surprisingly quiet against his former club. He and Connor Wickham did a pretty good job of holding the ball up, but they posed little attacking threat.
Then the moment that everyone had been waiting for arrived, as Yannick Bolasie marked his return to the team and was greeted by a standing ovation. He immediately showed what had been missing over the last couple of months with his pace and purpose, and was unlucky not to notch a goal late on when Wickham touched a shot that was destined for the net from an offside position. The whole side seemed to be lifted by his re-appearance and hopefully this augurs well for the remainder of the season. Attention now turns to the league, and the need to secure enough points to ensure safety must be the priority before the forthcoming quarter-final at Reading next month.
Follow Richard on twitter @rcfoster and look out for his book on the history of the Play-Offs: The Agony & The Ecstasy – http://amzn.to/1RDJdy5