Australian Four Four Two - - PREMIER LEAGUE -

Had the 2017-18 Pre­mier League cam­paign started on Christ­mas Day rather than Au­gust 12, the Ea­gles would have fin­ished eighth. Ev­ery club in the land could pick ar­bi­trary start and end dates to show their team in a pos­i­tive light, but there’s no doubt that Crys­tal Palace were a markedly im­proved out­fit once Roy Hodg­son’s ideas took hold.

They ended the sea­son on a high, win­ning four and draw­ing two of their fi­nal six matches. They de­liv­ered some out­stand­ing per­for­mances dur­ing that pe­riod: the 5-0 thrash­ing of Le­ices­ter in April was one of their best dis­plays since pro­mo­tion to the top flight in 2013. With a whole pre-sea­son be­hind them, Roy’s boys should be in bet­ter shape when they face Ful­ham on the open­ing week­end. Palace are un­likely to give their ri­vals the seven-game head­start they did last term.

Out­side of the divi­sion’s su­per­clubs, the Ea­gles have one of the strong­est start­ing line-ups in the top tier. Getafe free­bie Vi­cente Guaita should solve the club’s long-stand­ing goal­keep­ing co­nun­drum – as­sum­ing he set­tles bet­ter than Steve Man­danda – and Ma­madou Sakho and James Tomkins have formed a bril­liantly com­ple­men­tary part­ner­ship at cen­tre-back. Though Yo­han Cabaye has moved to Dubai, James McArthur and Luka Milivo­je­vic of­fer a va­ri­ety of at­tributes in mid­field, while ahead of them, Wil­fried Zaha and An­dros Townsend are speedy, skil­ful and di­rect. Then there’s Chris­tian Ben­teke, who had a des­per­ately dis­ap­point­ing 2017-18 but is more than ca­pa­ble of re­dis­cov­er­ing his fine goal ra­tio in the Pre­mier League.

But there are rea­sons to doubt this Palace side. Key player Ruben Lof­tus-Cheek is un­likely to re­turn for a sec­ond sea­son at Selhurst Park. There is in­ad­e­quate cover in at­tack, mid­field and, with Scott Dann still side­lined by a knee lig­a­ment in­jury, at the back.

Per­haps most sig­nif­i­cantly, Palace re­main re­liant on Zaha to pro­duce. To an ex­tent, that is only nat­u­ral, but Hodg­son’s charges can look short of ideas when the 25-year-old flyer is ab­sent or hav­ing an off-day.

With the top six spots seem­ingly wrapped up be­fore a ball has been kicked, Palace will face fierce com­pe­ti­tion for the fi­nal Euro­pean place, taken by Burn­ley last sea­son. While they should cer­tainly be in con­tention, it wouldn’t be a big sur­prise if Zaha & Co. missed out to one of Ever­ton, Le­ices­ter or New­cas­tle.

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