Crystal Palace provided one of the lasting memories of the 2013-14 Premier League season, scoring three goals in a breathtaking final 11 minutes at Selhurst Park on May 5 to draw 3-3 with Liverpool, leaving Luis Suarez in tears on his knees after a dagger blow to his club’s title hopes. Palace would go on to finish 11th in the table, comfortably safe on 45 points after a remarkable stretch of 5 consecutive wins to go with two draws and just one defeat in the season’s final eight matches. That form, combined with the club’s complete turnaround following the departure of Ian Holloway in November, garnered Tony Pulis the Manager of the Month award for April, and he was also named Manager of the Season in the Premier League by his fellow managers. With all that momentum, Palace seemed to be heading into the 2014-15 campaign on a high note.
However, that came to an abrupt halt yesterday after Tony Pulis left the club by mutual consent after disagreeing over the transfer policies held by club chairman Steve Parish. In the matter of 24 hours, Palace’s season has come undone before a single ball has been kicked.
Palace has only been able to bring in striker Fraizer Campbell from relegated Cardiff City for £900,000, 33-year old center back Brede Hangeland as a free agent following his release from also-relegated Fulham, and Chris Kettings from Blackpool, nothing more than a backup goalkeeper. There was also the last ditch £1.5million signing of defender Martin Kelly from Liverpool. Meanwhile, the Eagles have lost, amongst others, combative holding midfielder Kagisho Dikgachoi, aging central defender Danny Gabbidon, and Jonathan Parr, who combined to make 64 Premier League appearances between them last season.
Say what you will about the Pulis’s ambition, or his style of play, but he has been managing in the Premier League since 2007 and has never been relegated. For a team entering its second season back in the top flight, avoiding the drop still needs to be the first priority. The alternative is the trainwreck that is Blackpool now, or other clubs like Birmingham, Bolton, and Blackburn, who all spent seasons in the Premier League in recent years and are now mired in mid-table in the merciless Championship. If Palace were to be relegated this season, there is certainly no guarantee they would bounce back up, and there can be no doubt that their best chance to stay up is with Pulis at the helm.
Pulis brought in several key signings in January, including sealing the permanent move of Jason Puncheon, a pacey wide player capable of playing on either flank (he is especially dangerous cutting inside from the right) or behind the striker. Puncheon scored 7 goals in his 35 league appearances for Palace last year, including the only goal in three huge 1-0 wins over the course of the season. Joe Ledley came in and immediately established himself as a valuable regular in the center of the park. Scott Dann did the same thing in the center of defense; both played the last 14 games of Palace’s campaign and in that time, their side only lost on four occasions.
Experienced, mature players like the three above are the type that Pulis prefers for his sides, rather than the young (cheap) academy players that Parish wants to see get a chance this season. When Pulis arrived in November, Palace was in a desperate fight to retain Premier League status and would do whatever it took to do that, but with a fresh new season ahead for his club, it seems plausible Parish might opt to replace Pulis with a manager with whom he shares a more long-term philosophy. That would be a fatal mistake, in my opinion. A club with the size and resources of Crystal Palace needs to focus on consolidation and gradual improvement, in much the same vein as Pulis’ former club, Stoke City.
The current squad is nothing to write home about in the greater spectrum of the Premier League. Puncheon provides sorely-needed explosion and creativity to the side, and Dwight Gayle is full of energy, pace, and potential up front, though his finishing is woeful at times, as is that of Moroccan international Marouane Chamakh. Ledley and club captain Mile Jedinak are very solid, though not exceptional, in the center of midfield. Barry Bannan’s vision and ability to pick a pass is unquestionable, but at a slightly built 5’7”, he is limited in the impact he can have over a full 90 minutes. In the back, Dann and Hangeland will lead a line that concentrates almost exclusively on defense. Joel Ward is not a conventional right back by any stretch of the imagination and gives you next to nothing going forward, but he operated there effectively last season and will continue to do so. This is a unit that conceded only 27 goals in 27 games following Pulis’ appointment, with 11 clean sheets in that span. Goals will be the key for Palace in this campaign, and the addition of Fraizer Campbell should help in that regard.
Palace will want to have their Premier League status sown up before May, because if they don’t, it will be a long slog to stay alive. The Eagles travel to Chelsea and to Liverpool, split by a home game against Manchester United, before finishing the season at home to Swansea. The busy Christmas period is manageable, with a home date against Southampton on Boxing Day before going to QPR two days later and Aston Villa to close out the festive fixture list. Home games against Newcastle, Burnley, and Leicester are amongst the first six matches of the season and will provide opportunities for Palace to get the new season off to a decent start.
Predicted finish: 17th.
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