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First team

Media view: Expert insight on Crystal Palace

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AFC Bournemouth AFC Bournemouth

AFC Bournemouth will be hoping to hit the ground running when they host Premier League rivals Crystal Palace on Saturday (7.45pm kick-off).

Before lockdown, the Cherries had taken seven points from their previous three home games, beating Brighton and Aston Villa and drawing with Chelsea.

And Crystal Palace were on top form having secured three successive victories in the top flight, winning 1-0 against Newcastle, Brighton and Watford.

Roy Hodgson’s team looked likely to become embroiled in the relegation battle after winning just one of their 11 games following their 1-0 triumph over the Cherries in December.

But the recent run propelled them to 39 points and the Eagles, currently 11th in the Premier League table, can now set their sights on a top-half finish.

Ahead of the clash, afcb.co.uk caught up with Sam Smith, who covers the fortunes of Crystal Palace for the South London Press.

afcb.co.uk: How have Palace been building up to Saturday’s game?

SS: Palace returned to training on May 19th, working in small groups until they and each of the other clubs were given the green light by the Premier League to begin full-contact training in the first week of June.

Those early sessions naturally prioritised the fitness side over the technical side, which was to be expected given the break from football had expanded to over a month.

Roy Hodgson has praised the club’s fitness staff and Dr Zaf Iqbal for their work in ensuring the safety of the players both during lockdown and when they returned to training.

There was a friendly against West Ham. No official score was reported by either club. South London rivals Charlton Athletic were expected to visit Palace’s Beckenham training ground for a second friendly before the re-commencement of the season.

There have been several young players involved in training, including first-year scholar John-Kymani Gordon, and the addition of two extra subs in the Premier League could open a gap for them to impress.

afcb.co.uk: Has lockdown benefited Palace with regards to any injured players now being fit?

SS: An injury crisis which started just before Christmas was beginning to diminish slightly prior to the cancellation of all football, but there were still a few players who were absent.

Regular centre-back pairing James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho were still in the rehabilitation stage of respective injuries and should now both be back which will be a relief to Hodgson, although Scott Dann and Gary Cahill were both in good form before the break.

afcb.co.uk: Has lockdown hampered Palace with regards to any players falling out of contract at the end of June?

SS: Only third-choice goalkeeper Stephen Henderson is out of contract at the end of this season so Palace have been lucky in that respect, while Dann had only recently signed a new deal.

Had there been four or five players out of contract who, for whatever reason, did not feel able to extend their deals until the end of July then there may have been a big dilemma for Hodgson, who oversees a small squad. 

afcb.co.uk: Before lockdown, Palace had enjoyed an upturn in fortunes. Can you put your finger on what was behind the revival?

SS: Hodgson was asked this exact question after the victory against Watford in their last game before lockdown and summed up the situation well.

Palace had gone eight games without a win before beating Newcastle on February 22nd but there were so many mitigating factors which added a bit more context to that period.

It was around early December when it seemed Palace would lose at least one player to injury per game.

Sometimes you would ask for team news at a press conference and Hodgson would reel off a list of three or four players who had suffered fresh injuries.

You hear the phrase 'injury crisis' bandied around a lot by managers but this one was genuine.

During one period, there were only 11 genuinely fit senior players. Some were having to play through injury – such as during the 2-2 draw against Manchester City in January.

Having worked so hard to secure that point they then played a high-energy, in-form Southampton at Selhurst Park a few days later and some players were visibly shattered.

There were other examples of bad luck mixed with individual errors. The usually-reliable Vicente Guaita dropped the ball over his own goal-line in the 1-0 defeat against Sheffield United – a game Palace had dominated.

Against Everton, each of the three goals conceded in the 3-1 defeat were highly avoidable.

The rise in form is largely down to those injured players returning to full fitness. Hodgson now has genuine options, which he didn't have for the best part of three months.

afcb.co.uk: Although Wilfried Zaha has only scored three goals, how would you rate his season?

SS: By his own very high standards, it’s been a below-par season for Zaha.

That might have something to do with his action-packed summer. There was the very public transfer saga involving him, Palace, Arsenal and latterly Everton.

He also competed in the Africa Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast. It would be naïve to suggest that didn’t affect his poor start to the season.

It’s important to remember that Zaha also brings a lot more than just goals and assists.

Some teams prepare a whole game plan based on stopping him. There was evidence of that against Watford in the last game before lockdown.

When teams use two or three players to mark him in an attempt to minimalise his threat, it provides a bit more space for the likes of Jordan Ayew, Christian Benteke and Andros Townsend to impact the game.

He has not scored as many goals as he would have liked, nor has he been as influential as he has in previous seasons.

But he’s actually involved in the build-up to a lot of Palace’s goals, whether that’s playing the pass to the player who claims an assist or whether it’s leading a counter-attack that results in a chance.

afcb.co.uk: Who has been Palace’s standout performer this season?

SS: The success this season has been due to a collective effort, which is typical of most Hodgson teams.

However, there are three very strong contenders for player of the year. Gary Cahill has been excellent, Guaita has kept Palace in plenty of games, but Jordan Ayew is the one who stands out as the best performer.

The story of Ayew’s Palace career is slightly strange. He was on loan last season and only managed one league goal in 20 appearances.

At times, he looked unfit and lacking in confidence. At other times, he showed slight glimpses of being a decent option, but those times were incredibly rare.

He was signed for around £2 million in the summer and a large part of Palace’s fanbase were unhappy.

They asked why the club could not pay a bit more for a striker with a proven record of regularly scoring goals.

Southampton buying Che Adams around a similar time after he had netted 22 times for Birmingham last season only increased that frustration – although, ironically, Adams has failed to score for the Saints.

Ayew has been completely different this campaign and has proved many people wrong.

His goals have directly won Palace 14 points this season. They currently sit comfortably in mid-table on 39 points, 25 would have them comfortably in the relegation zone. That shows his importance.

He looks fitter and scoring the winner against Brighton in February made him a fans’ favourite. 

afcb.co.uk: Give us your thoughts on Gary Cahill?

SS: He has been outstanding. At 33 and already having won every major honour there is to win in club football with Chelsea, Palace fans could probably have been forgiven for – albeit perhaps cynically – thinking he was joining for a final pay cheque and to comfortably see out the final years of his career.

There was a feeling among supporters that he wouldn’t have been able to perform at a consistently high level. Those doubts were so, so wrong.

Palace have had some excellent centre-backs since promotion in 2013. Scott Dann, Damien Delaney, James Tomkins, Martin Kelly and Mamadou Sakho have all been very good.

Cahill is on a different level to each of those. He raises the performance of whoever plays at centre-back with him and brings such assurance to the back four.

His experience and leadership qualities are invaluable traits, he attacks the ball with such authority and he is one of the best defenders I’ve watched.

afcb.co.uk: Do you have any funny anecdotes of dealing with Roy Hodgson?

SS: What you see is what you get with Hodgson. He’s personable, likable and has so many interesting stories to tell.

To be managing into a 44th year and to still enjoy it – in his words – “as much as ever” is remarkable.

I’ve not had any necessarily funny interactions with him yet, but the positive news of him signing a contract extension until the end of next season gives me a bit more time!

afcb.co.uk: What’s your score prediction?

SS: Although I have not watched much of Bournemouth this season, I’m shocked to see them in the relegation zone. I think it will be a 1-1 draw. 

You can follow Sam on Twitter – @SamGeorgeSmith

Match officials: Stuart Attwell (referee), Simon Long (assistant), Constantine Hatzidakis (assistant), Tim Robinson (fourth official), Simon Hooper (VAR), Derek Eaton (assistant VAR).

Some of this media view first appeared on our website ahead of the original fixture in March.

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