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May 17 2021 10.48am

Can the Eagles really dream of Europe?

November 16 2020

Selhurst Park

Selhurst Park

Back in 1962 when Crystal Palace were slumming it in the old Third Division, they played host to one of the greatest Real Madrid sides of all time, writes Anthony Wilmott.

The Spanish champions visited Selhurst Park with their full array of talent on display, including legends of the era such as Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano, delighting fans in South London with their presence. It was a rare opportunity to watch these talented stars, especially from the terraces of their own home.

However, that momentous occasion was ultimately little more than a friendly encounter, albeit one that concluded with an epic 4-3 score favouring the Spaniards.

They were using the game as a warm-up for their European Cup final date with Benfica, while it was an opportunity for Palace to show off luxurious new floodlights and fill the stands. Ever since then, the club and fans have dreamed of repeating such games competitively in Europe.

The Steve Coppell era

The Eagles did come agonisingly close to qualifying for Europe on a couple of occasions during the exciting reign of Steve Coppell as manager. It took two attempts by Manchester United to beat Crystal Palace in the 1990 FA Cup Final, after the 3-3 draw led to a replay won 1-0 by the Red Devils. They went on to compete in the Cup Winners' Cup the following season, going all the way in that competition and beating Barcelona in the Rotterdam final.

Meanwhile, Coppell and Palace remained positive and ambitious. Producing a brilliant 1990-91 campaign and winning 20 of their 38 games, the team finished third in the old First Division, achieving the highest ever top-flight position in the club’s history.

Arsenal won the title that season and claimed their place in the European Cup. Unfortunately, there was just one spot available to English clubs in the UEFA Cup at the time, which went to second-placed Liverpool.

Prioritising Premier League survival

After spending most of their time in the Championship over the following two decades, upon returning to the Premier League, Crystal Palace have at least managed to retain their place amongst the English elite in recent times. The aim for the club has been to lay down firmer Premier League foundations, which it has done successfully over the last seven consecutive seasons.

Of course, the team has flirted with the threat of relegation on more than one occasion, despite clear expectations of avoiding that particular scrap with some comfort. Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce; they all had their spells at the helm before the club opted to appoint the first-ever foreign Palace manager. Frank de Boer brought hopes of more exciting football, yet he lasted just 77 days in the job before being sacked.

Steady Influence & Growing Ambitions

When the Dutchman departed, former England boss Roy Hodgson was appointed. Since then, the club appears to have gained a lot more stability thanks to his experience. The 2020-21 campaign will be his fourth season in charge and after a promising start to the campaign, many are starting to see the Eagles as a potential challenger in the top division, but not necessarily the best of the bunch.

For example, Betway, one of the leading bookmakers offering odds on the Premier League, has Palace at 500/1 fifth-favourites to be the top London club this year in the outright markets.

Despite being tipped for another campaign of mid-table obscurity ahead of the new season, given that no team in the Premier League remains unbeaten after their opening six games, competition for European positions could be wide open.

So long as they can remain in the top half of the table and within touching distance, there’s absolutely no reason why the Eagles can’t maintain ambitions of earning themselves a spot in the Europa League.

Can the European dream come true?

Without any shadow of a doubt, finishing amongst the top six or seven teams in the Premier League will be a tall order. Nevertheless, doing so would be a fitting conclusion to the Hodgson’s extensive managerial career, should he decide to call time and head into retirement at the end of the season.

That said, it’s hard to imagine Roy walking away if he led Palace into European competition, as one last continental hurrah would surely be too appetising to resist - especially after he stumbled at the final hurdle with Fulham.

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