The FourFourTwo Preview: Crystal Palace vs Aston Villa
A chance for the Eagles to unexpectedly soar higher – against a dispirited and depleted opposition.
At first glance, Tony Pulis and the ancient Greek philosopher Hesiod share very little in common. One is a bespectacled Welshman who wears a sports cap and shouts a lot, the other a wise old scholar with a beard and flowing hair who did much of his best work sometime between 750 and 650BC.
CRYSTAL PALACE FORM
- Cardiff 0-3 Palace (Prem)
- Palace 1-0 Chelsea (Prem)
- Newcastle 1-0 Palace (Prem)
- S'land 0-0 Palace (Prem)
- Palace 0-1 So'ton (Prem)
ASTON VILLA FORM
- Aston Villa 1-2 Fulham (Prem)
- Man Utd 4-1 Aston Villa (Prem)
- Aston Villa 1-4 Stoke (Prem)
- Aston Villa 1-0 Chelsea (Prem)
- Aston Villa 4-1 Norwich (Prem)
They would never be mistaken for one another in a police line-up, but they do share one key thing in common. A great philosophy. "Observe due measure," said Hesiod many years ago, "for timing is in all things the most important factor." And indeed it is. As all good comics, porn stars and the Crystal Palace manager know, timing is absolutely everything.
Just a few short weeks ago, Crystal Palace appeared to be sliding down the table towards the dead men. Five games, two draws and three defeats suggested the spirited revival under Pulis had run out of puff and run its course.
True, Pulis had bolted Palace tight at the back (they conceded just five goals in those five games), but they couldn't hit a camel’s backside with a banjo (those five games yielded just one goal). Things were so bad at one point that even Newcastle United beat them, and the doom-mongers feared the worst.
Yet Pulis remained calm, keeping his bald head and Hesiod’s sage words in mind. "Observe due measure, y'know," he told reporters. "For timing is, if you like, in all things, to be fair, the most important factor... at the end of the day." Now obviously that quote has been embellished to keep a flimsy conceit going, but the fact remains that Pulis understands timing is everything. Palace ended that wobble by beating Chelsea 1-0.
And even though they still couldn't score a goal when winning, they deserved it. Then, when it really mattered, in one of the many six-point skirmishes taking place at the bottom right now, they went to Cardiff last weekend and as good as relegated them with a performance quite out of character – they scored three times.
Timing this burst to absolute perfection, Palace are now as good as safe as they entertain an Aston Villa side whose performance in defeat at home to Fulham last Saturday drew comparisons with the very worst days under Alex McLeish. Villa will be grateful they face Palace at Selhurst Park and not in front of their own dispirited and disgruntled supporters – the Fulham defeat was the 10th time in 17 games that Villa have been beaten at home this season. Not even ‘Big Eck’ achieved that.
That said, while Palace could be 10 points clear of the final relegation place by the final whistle on Saturday night, vaulting Villa in the table and sitting as high as 12th, until safety is mathematically certain, they will not be popping any corks.
Twenty-one long years ago, during the very first Premier League season (go ask Granddad, kids), Crystal Palace under Steve Coppell appeared safe with two games to go. If they took two points, they would send Oldham down – the Latics needed three wins from their final three games and a monumental miracle. As it turned out, Palace took a single point, Oldham won all three, and the rest is history.
If Pulis masterminds survival, it will maintain his record of never having been relegated. More than that, though, it would be the first time Palace have remained in the Premier League for more than a single season after four instant relegations. And Hesiod would stroke his beard in admiration at that.
In stark contrast to the visitors, Palace have few injury worries. Only Dwight Gayle is missing. A fit-again Marouane Chamakh is vying for a start. Christian Benteke won’t play again for between six and eight months but Grant Holt will be hoping to keep his place after scoring his first goal for the club last weekend. Fabian Delph, Karim El Ahmadi and Gabriel Agbonlahor all missed the Fulham game but are sniffing a start.
Player to watch: Jason Puncheon (Palace)
Pulis spoke glowingly of Joe Ledley's creative contribution in the 3-0 win at Cardiff, and rightly so, but the real plaudits belonged to Puncheon. Picking up where he left off against Chelsea the previous weekend, Puncheon ran the game for Palace, scoring twice and being central to everything for the visitors.
In a team that struggles to score, Puncheon’s goals were vital and now put him level on five with top scorer Chamakh. But the midfielder's creativity was really key. Puncheon dominated all the big stats against Cardiff – 6 shots, all on target; most passes (35/41); most chances created (3) – and should again pose the greatest threat.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Villa 0-1 Palace (Prem, Dec 13)
- Villa 3-1 Palace (FAC, Feb 2010)
- Palace 2-2 Villa (FAC, Feb 2010)
- Palace 2-0 Villa (Prem, Jan 05)
- Villa 1-1 Palace (Prem, Sep 04)
Had Pulis been blessed with a larger squad of better players, he might have found himself tinkering with his team during that winless run. But, having been dealt a limited (but willing) hand, he's kept faith with his team, stayed true to his dogged dogs of war blueprint, kept two defensive midfielders protecting a well-drilled back four and watched at Cardiff as his offensive-minded outfield players operated with a fluidity most out of keeping with their season. Yet he remains cautious by nature. “We still have a lot of work to do,” he urged.
Opposite number Paul Lambert is dour by default so found little to enjoy in the defeat to Fulham. "I'd have settled for a draw," he harrumphed, of the game against the bottom side. In Lambert's defence, a long injury list has deprived the Scot of a number of key players – Benteke's Achilles being the latest setback. He plans to go cap in hand and ask Randy Lerner for money to strengthen in the summer, which suggests he at least is planning for another season. If the lethargy continues, Randy may beg to differ.
Facts and figures
- Tony Pulis has been at Crystal Palace for 20 games and in that time Palace have been the 8th best team in the league as only Chelsea and Man City have conceded fewer goals.
- Palace have won 5 of their last 6 home games against bottom-half teams including three 1-0s.
- There have been fewer than 3 goals in 5 of Villa’s 7 trips to bottom-half teams this season.
- Villa have been level at half-time in half their games this season – only 3 teams have had more HT draws.
The Eagles are flying and should have too much for the visitors. 2-0.