April 20, 2016. Liverpool celebrated one of the most comfortable, comprehensive Merseyside derby victories, having brushed Everton aside in a 4-0 win. Spirits were high.
It was the second time the Kop had been treated to a spectacle in the space of less than a week. Six days prior, they beat Borussia Dortmund 4-3 in one of the most remarkable games in recent memory.
Mamadou Sakho scored in both, plundering headers past Roman Weidenfeller and Joel Robles. A season that promised so much for Liverpool at that stage – a Europa League semi-final was their reward for the Dortmund win – paled in comparison to what Sakho could achieve: he was a certainty to make France’s squad for Euro 2016. The host nation were the favourites to win the tournament.
Before this last Saturday, April 20, 2016 marked Sakho’s most recent first-team game for club or country. A doping ban, overturned two days before France were defeated by Portugal in the final, abruptly ended his dream. He returned to the Liverpool squad in the summer, but he was sent home from their pre-season tour of America due to poor discipline and time-keeping. A rollercoaster that had almost reached the apex had instead crashed to its nadir.
Sakho would never return from Anfield purgatory. Even when Liverpool’s defensive deficiencies were exposed, their most naturally talented centre-half remained on the periphery. He was reluctant to leave, to admit defeat, but Crystal Palace offered a necessary escape route.
The Frenchman might well have been regretting his decision. The loan signing watched on from the bench in his first game, as powerless as his teammates in resisting defeat to Sunderland. He was expected to improve a defence that had just been breached four times by a side below them in the Premier League table.
Wayne Hennessey, Joel Ward, James Tomkins and Patrick van Aanholt all started the Sunderland game, and the quartet did so again as they kept a clean sheet against Middlesbrough. That their improvement came with the debut of Sakho, the only new member of the back five, was no coincidence.
Palace have looked 100x more solid with Sakho at centre back today. He's the rock we've needed all season! ?? #CPFC
— Crystal Palace FC ? (@CpfcNews_) February 25, 2017
Boro do not boast the most threatening of attacks, scoring a league-low 19 goals in 26 games, but Sakho played the most influential part in their failure to breach the Palace defence on Saturday. He made one tackle, one interception and six clearances, marshalling the back four as if it wasn’t his first game in ten months.
But the most impressive aspect of Sakho’s performance was his ball retention. The 27-year-old has long been considered clumsy and mistake-prone, his gangly frame and awkward style doing little to disprove the perception. Yet he recorded a passing accuracy of 92% at Selhurst Park; Palace’s next best player was Andros Townsend, on 80.2%.
His new manager was impressed. “His experience and composure was there and he was very commanding in that position,” said Allardyce after a 1-0 win which moved Palace out of the relegation zone. “I wasn’t sure if he would last the whole game, but he did and we needed him today.”
On this evidence, Palace will need him for the rest of the season. A fight that was looking increasingly difficult to win has swayed back in their favour. Sakho has taken his first step on the path to redemption, and his new club will reap the rewards. One Klopp’s trash is another Sam’s treasure, as they say.