December was a particularly harsh and unforgiving month at Selhurst Park. Despite suffering defeat just once at the hands of table-topping Cardiff, Crystal Palace tasted victory also once, having thrown away winning positions on four separate occasions. The club were still endorsing the same brand of attractive football but perhaps the runaway bandwagon was beginning to grind to a halt.
The prospect of January offered little reprieve, with the uncertainty of the transfer window threatening to steal away the team’s shining stars. However, New Year’s day was greeted by a comfortable victory against Wolves, a result that completed a surprising double over the recently relegated Wanderers. Palace then hosted Stoke in the FA Cup and in spite of the goalless scoreline, the match showed signs that the club are finally ready for a return to the big time.
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Stoke are a notoriously impotent team away from the Britannia Stadium but the fact that the Eagles confined the Potters to just one shot on target should not go unnoticed. Pulis decided to send out a strong line-up – bar the inclusion of former England international’s Peter Crouch and Michael Owen – but quickly discovered his formidable henchman would face a stern physical battle. Although the upcoming replay threatens to derail the promotion push in the league, Palace will reinforce their credentials if they can ‘do it’ on a cold night in Stoke.
As I write this, Wilfried Zaha is still very much at the heart of the club, even with his status as the most desirable investment outside the top flight. There have been countless stories regarding pending medicals leading to done deals, but every tangible quote that I can lay my hands on seems to refute such speculation. Only today, Sir Alex Ferguson distanced himself from any pending transfer activity:
“There is nothing to report.
“It is January. The media are all getting a bit desperate. There is nothing to tell you.” (The Sun)
Of course, Zaha’s departure is still a very genuine possibility but it’s increasingly evident that it will be on the club’s own terms.
Those who have yet to witness the Eagles in action this season have been quick to brand the club a ‘one man’ team. Thankfully, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, there is an exact replica of Zaha on the opposite flank in the form of Yannick Bolasie and the spellbinding duo have helped striker Glenn Murray notch up an unrivalled 22 goals.
Elsewhere in the team, Damien Delaney has emerged from his exile at Ipswich to establish himself as one of the most dependable defenders in the league while the midfield partnership of new poster boy Mile Jedinak and Kagisho Dikgacoi would cause defensive midfield enthusiast Rafael Benitez to go weak at the knees.
Ian Holloway insists his new side are slowly starting to play with a recognised rhythm and balance. However, if former manager Dougie Freedman could be criticised for being too defensive, Holloway can be found struggling at the other end of the scale. The news that recognised right-back Joel Ward has joined captain Paddy McCarthy on the sidelines exposes a nagging need for defensive reinforcements.
Whereas previous transfer windows have triggered a sense of dread among supporters, there is an underlying feeling that Holloway will be able to attract a superior calibre of player. Rumours are already circulating that Sunderland midfielder David Vaughan is tempted to renew his working relationship with his former boss and Carl Jenkinson could join on loan as a means of building a bridge for the future transfer of Zaha.
Even if such high profile signings fail to materialise, the club must strengthen in January to signal their intent for the rest of the campaign. Last season’s promoted trio all bolstered their attacking lines at this stage and Billy Sharp’s nine goals in 15 appearances helped Southampton leapfrog West Ham to gain automatic promotion.
Palace may not possess the same strength and depth as their promotion rivals but few can compete with their much publicised squad harmony. Even if they fall short of the top two, a place in the playoffs may prove a blessing in disguise, especially considering the clubs and their new manager’s past success in this route to the Premier League.