ARE THEY GOOD ENOUGH TO PUSH FOR EUROPE?
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.