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May 31 2020 10.39am

Eagles facing crucial run of fixtures

February 12 2020

Roy Hodgson

Roy Hodgson

The Premier League is the toughest league in the world, and the fortunes of Crystal Palace over the last few weeks have underlined the intensively competitive nature of the top flight of English football, writes Steve Drinkwater.

At Christmas, Roy Hodgson’s Eagles were flying high. A victory over West Ham on Boxing Day took them to ninth in the Premier League table, and while their inconsistency meant few fans were seriously talking about a top-six challenge, it seemed that another midtable finish was assured.

But seven games later, and things are looking a lot bleaker. A run of four draws was acceptable, given that two of those stalemates came against Arsenal and Manchester City.

But that was followed by alarming home defeats against Southampton and Sheffield United, and then at the weekend, they suffered a third defeat in a row, going down 3-1 at Goodison Park in a tough loss against Everton.

That slump means that they have slipped to 14th in the table, just six points clear of the drop zone and if you’re placing your bet at one of the bigger bookies on the relegation market, you might be tempted to wager on Palace dropping down to the second tier on current form. The fact that three of the teams below them also have a game in hand is another concern for Hodgson.

If Palace are to pull themselves out of their slump, then the next four games will be crucial. The Eagles face Newcastle United, currently 12th in the table, in their next Premier League assignment.

This is followed by an away trip to Brighton (15th), a home game against Watford (19th) and a visit to the south coast to take on Bournemouth (16th). It’s not too dramatic to say that these next four games could decide Palace’s fate this season.

On paper, these games are winnable, although their recent record against their next four opponents is mixed. In the reverse fixtures they beat Bournemouth, lost to Newcastle and drew against Brighton and Watford. A similar haul of points from the next run of fixtures would go some way to securing their safety, but in their current form, that might be asking too much.

So, what has gone wrong for the Eagles? Well, it isn’t a defensive issue. You can always expect a Roy Hodgson team to be well-organised, and this Palace line-up are just that. In fact, only five teams in the Premier League have a better defensive record, and all of them are in the top nine.

The source of the problem lies in the goals scored column. Palace have found the net 23 times in their 26 league fixtures this season – a rate of 0.88 goals per game – and recent results suggest that the problem might be getting worse, as they’ve scored only once in their last three.

But that goal, by Christian Benteke, at Goodison at the weekend might hint at an improvement. Palace struggled to match Everton in the first half of that game, but they enjoyed an impressive spell of attacking play after the break, in which Benteke levelled the match.

They were ultimately unable to build on it, but the goal for the Belgian international could prove significant. He hadn’t scored since April last year but seemed to grow in confidence after finding the net.

Given that Palace have only been able to sign one forward, Cenk Tosun, who is currently out with a hamstring injury, a Benteke resurgence could be just what the doctor ordered for Hodgson.

If he can return to his best form, Palace’s strong defence should be able to help them come through a crucial run of fixtures and secure their top flight status for another season.

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