BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
As the clock ticks down to the beginning of the new season of the Barclays Premier League, I begin to preview the teams involved, starting with last year’s Championship playoff winners – Crystal Palace.
Whether they survive or go back straight down into the Championship, Crystal Palace are guaranteed to be darlings of the press mainly because of manager Ian Holloway. Holloway is pure box office gold due to his concoctions of witty analogies, funny quotes and outrageously invented words.
Palace have won three out of their four pre-season fixtures so far, all against teams in divisions below them. The only defeat was a 3-0 walloping at the hands of Crawley, a reminder that when Holloway’s attacking ethos doesn’t click the defence can be torn to shreds, something that will need to be rectified in the Premier League.
On defence: Between the sticks, Julian Speroni is one of the most consistent and reliable goalkeepers in the league. The Argentinian has been a stalwart for Palace in the last six seasons, often keeping the team alive in games and earning crucial points with breath-taking saves and maintaining a calm head under pressure.
Damien Delaney and Peter Ramage formed a solid partnership in the centre of the defence last season and will be expected to maintain their consistency in the new campaign. Worryingly for Holloway the cover for the duo is thin, with Danny Gabbidon and Paddy McCarthy the only other recognized centre-backs. Veteran Gabbidon is surely not up to Premier League standards anymore and can’t be relied on other than a few substitute appearances in closing out games. McCarthy is revered amongst the Palace faithful and is still officially club captain. However, he missed the whole of last season due to injuries, and there will be serious doubts about his match fitness when he returns to the team.
Holloway has more options as far as fullbacks are concerned. Joel Ward currently occupies the right-back slot and Holloway has given academy product Quade Taylor substantial minutes in pre-season, hinting at the youngster becoming his first choice backup in the position. Norwegian Jonathan Parr established himself as a defensively sound left-back last season, but if the situation demands Holloway can call on the more adventurous Dean Moxey to add an extra attacking dimension.
The midfield: The first name on the Crystal Palace team sheet is fan favourite and last year’s player of the season, Mile Jedinak. Taking on the captaincy in light of McCarthy’s absence, the Australian relished the responsibility to inspire his team to promotion. Jedinak’s exceptional tackling enables him to help the defence, and his aerial ability has assisted the centre-backs on numerous occasions when dealing with set pieces.
Sitting alongside Jedinak at the base of midfield is South African international Kagisho Dikgacoi. Holloway likes his holding midfielders to be comfortable with the ball, and Dikgacoi fulfils his remit by complementing Jedinak through his exceptional passing and ability to retain possession in the centre of the park.
Holloway loves to have his midfielders interchange positions and form attacking triangles further up the pitch. Irishman Owen Garvan relished Holloway’s approach establishing himself as a starter due to his late runs into the box and link-up play with the wingers and forwards. The signing of Spain’s Under-20 captain José Campaña is a real shot in the arm for Palace. Already in pre-season Campaña has played some exquisite through balls, and if the youngster can adjust to the rigours of English football quickly, Palace could have a game-changer in midfield.
On the attack: Crystal Palace are without two of their most potent attacking threats from last season. Glen Murray scored 30 goals in the Championships last year, but suffered a knee ligament injury in the playoff semi-final from which he has yet to recover. Wilfried Zaha who supplied the most assists from the wing, and was crucially man of the match in the playoff semi-finals and final is now at Manchester United.
In place of Zaha, Palace have signed Jerome Thomas. Thomas started his career at Arsenal, but over the past decade he has become a journeyman winger who has played for different teams providing the occasional mazy run and rare assist. To compensate for Murray’s injury Holloway has bought in Dwight Gayle from Peterborough. Forwards signed from the Championship historically tend to struggle in the Premier League. Palace will hope that Gayle turns out to be more like Rickie Lambert or Grant Holt rather than Jermaine Beckford or Michael Ricketts.
Forty-year-old Kevin Phillips has been rewarded with a one-year contract for his role in helping Palace win promotion, and Marouane Chamakh has just been signed on loan from Arsenal. The Moroccan is at least an upgrade in terms of pedigree compared to the other forwards in the squad, although his form can’t be vouched for.
Palace however do have two attacking players from last season who can possibly replicate their success at a higher level. Flying under the radar due to the constant hype around Zaha, Yannick Bolasie excelled on the left wing. The Democratic Republic of Congo international doesn’t rely excessively on pace, instead marrying his dribbling ability with smart movement off the ball to drag defenders out of position. Nineteen-year-old attacking midfielder Jonathan Williams is the latest talent to come out of the conveyor belt of creative footballers in Wales. Williams needs some nurturing, but has all the attributes to be the next breakout star in the league. He can create problems for many a defence with his combination of beating players on the wing and the rare ability of finding time on the ball before releasing his teammates in space with sublime passes.
Conclusion: Crystal Palace have reached the promised land after being on the brink of liquidation a couple of seasons ago. Their participation in the Premier League is already a great story irrespective of what happens. Expect Speroni to be prominently featured in highlight shows, and it would be a huge surprise if Holloway asks his team to sit back regardless of the opposition. The attacking talent on display will certainly catch a few teams off guard, and at times Palace will be amongst the most entertaining teams to watch. However, the deficiencies in defence will be ruthlessly exposed in the unforgiving confines of the Premier League, and for that reason it is extremely unlikely that Crystal Palace will survive.