In a week where Rafael Benitez was forced to defend his tactics against Manchester City, the pressure was on Crystal Palace to prove that there is a way for the Premier League’s many goldfish to cope when put in a tank with its biggest shark. Newcastle floundered at home to the leaders; could Palace prosper?
The response was emphatic, the message loud and clear. Fifteen teams and 40 points separated these two sides ahead of kick-off on Sunday, just as the gap Newcastle stared down on Wednesday was 13 teams and 37 points. But while the Magpies seemed to accept their fate from the first minute, Palace at least showed endeavour and ambition.
Their reward was to come within one penalty of a famous victory. Luka Milivojevic was granted the opportunity to inflict upon City a first Premier League defeat since April from 12 yards out but, as has often been the case this season, Pep Guardiola’s side were able to rely on their final line of defence when all looked lost. Ederson made the save, and the unbeaten run continues.
The winning run does not, and it is testament to Palace’s approach that they forced City to drop only their fourth points of the season. They fought fire with fire, while Newcastle and many before them simply made a panicked, incoherent phone call to the emergency services and hoped for the best.
Then again, no side outside the Premier League’s elite has a talent such as Wilfried Zaha to call upon in a time of need. The winger came runner-up in our top ten players outside the top six in November, but he continues to improve and develop with each passing game. He is the best of the Premier League’s ‘rest’.
Every Palace player emerges with credit from Sunday. Martin Kelly, a first-half substitute, provided a wonderful Burnley tribute act, repelling anything and everything that came his way. Timothy Fosu-Mensah was imperious, providing Jose Mourinho with food for his January thoughts. Jairo Riedewald rose to the challenge of his first league start since the opening day with aplomb.
But it was Zaha who was integral to Roy Hodgson’s successful game plan. Each attack flowed through him, each pass sought him, each City player was fearful of what he might do. Kyle Walker fared well, but even this £50million right-back was left tending to his battle wounds by full-time.
Zaha’s tussle with Walker was an intriguing game in itself, a meeting of two equals in a game strangely devoid of match-deciding quality from the visitors. Kevin de Bruyne suffered an incredibly rare off-day, while Raheem Sterling could make little impact as a second-half substitute. His most telling contribution was to concede the penalty from which Milivojevic missed.
That it was Zaha who won the spot kick was predictable. The 25-year-old completed seven dribbles – at least three more than any other player – and created two goalscoring chances. Andros Townsend was guilty of missing the most presentable.
City identified Zaha’s threat too. He was fouled five times, with no other player subjected to such treatment. And when it seemed Walker had got the better of him on the left, Zaha switched to the right before winning his penalty. Hodgson deserves great credit for out-thinking his managerial adversary.
Guardiola’s near-obsession with tactics is well-told, his insistence on devising separate and specific tactical plans to overcome each opponent key to his success. It speaks volumes that much of his own game plan here centered around silencing his opponent’s biggest threat.
It is this sort of performance that only strengthens the belief that Zaha’s time at Selhurst Park is limited. The natural reaction to a player impressing anywhere but Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, City, Manchester United or Tottenham is to wonder when they will eventually earn that chance to prove themselves on a higher plane.
Which is what makes Zaha so unique. His promotion has been and gone, his opportunity at United a mere footnote in an otherwise successful career. The winger is tainted by his two years at Old Trafford, a spell characterised by mismanagement and woeful results post-Sir Alex Ferguson. For many, his four games at the club is proof of his inability to make the step up.
And so when any of the Premier League’s elite do come calling for Zaha, he will know more than most to think twice. This big fish was lost at sea at United, but has made the Palace pond his own. The fans have grown to adore him, and it is that sort of relationship that could see him buck the trend.