The Thursday Preview: Crystal Palace Vs West Ham United
Prior to the start of the season you probably couldn’t have picked two Championship sides with more diametrically opposed expectation levels than Crystal Palace and West Ham. While Saturday’s visitors to Selhurst Park were widely tipped to bounce straight back up into the top flight, the home team were fearful of exiting the division in the opposite direction – and with some justification, having limped to safety last time out and finishing in a lowly 20th position. Struggling against relegation has become a commonplace for Palace – it’s telling that ‘keeper Julian Speroni was named as the club’s Player of the Year in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
In those terms, Palace’s season thus far has been little short of a triumph. An opening-day defeat to Peterborough was soon banished from memory courtesy of a trio of victories. That may have been followed by a three-match losing streak culminating in last Saturday’s loss at basement boys Doncaster, but the Eagles refused to get downheartened or disspirited, roaring back to form (and from a goal down) to inflict a first-ever league defeat upon high-flying Brighton at their new home.
Glenn Murray will no doubt have savoured that result more than most in red and blue. Lured by Palace’s filthy lucre / discarded in the summer to make way for Craig Mackail-Smith (who’d given the Seagulls the lead), depending on your point of view, and vilified by many of those who’d formerly cheered him on, Murray had the satisfaction of crowning the win with a neatly taken 91st minute strike, and thereby helping to further loosen the wheels which already seem to be starting to come off Gus Poyet’s promotion bandwagon.
Palace’s other two goalscorers on Tuesday evening also merit a mention. The equaliser came courtesy of Wilfried Zaha (Dazet Wilfried Armel Zaha to his mother). This season the 18-year-old forward has started to get himself on the scoresheet more often, and has reportedly already caught the eye of the Premier League talent-hoovers. In academy products Zaha, full-back Nathaniel Clyne, striker Sean Scannell and now 17-year-old Welsh midfielder Jon Williams (the best player on the pitch on Tuesday, according to Brighton fans), Palace have as exciting a clutch of youngsters as any side in the division. Eagles fans will be grateful that the quartet will be staying at Selhurst Park until January at least – and then hopeful that the cautionary tale of John Bostock will be enough to dissuade them from trying to run before they’ve really learned to walk.
And then there’s Darren Ambrose, the substitute who gave Palace the lead at the Amex a minute from time. Fifteen goals from midfield in 2009/10, following a free transfer move from Charlton, helped to secure the Championship status of a club reeling from administration, as well as to scoop him the accolade of TTU’s Bargain Buy of the Season. Ambrose hasn’t quite rediscovered that form since, but he’s still only 27. Whether he lacked the ability at the very top level or was just unfairly marginalised at Newcastle, restricted to sporadic appearances out wide, is a matter for debate, but the wonderful jinking run and goal I witnessed at Old Trafford would suggest the latter.
The man tasked with getting the best out of Ambrose is Dougie Freedman, appointed following the sacking of George Burley and proudly flying the flag for the policy of promoting from within on the basis that knowledge of and passion for a club is more important than managerial experience. The Scot has done tremendously well during his time in charge, operating on limited resources and with a team that was, initially at least, hopelessly bereft of confidence. He seems to have an eye for shrewd acquisitions and a persuasive manner, too, if summer recruits like Norwegian left-back Jonathan Parr and Australian midfielder Mile Jedinak are anything to go by.
On Saturday the relative novice will be pitting his wits against a dugout veteran, and his side against formidable foes from across the Thames. In the minds of most Championship supporters, West Ham are probably vying with moneybags Leicester for the title of the most fancied outfit in the league, so it will be a relief to the Hammers that they currently sit five points clear of Sven’s men, even if pesky upstarts Southampton, a resurgent Middlesbrough and surprise package Derby are denying them top spot.
Forced to rebuild by the post-relegation firesale, Fat Sam has largely turned to familiar faces from his Bolton days. Abdoulaye Faye is an absolute tank, slow-moving but powerful and capable of crushing anything and anyone in his path; Matt Taylor is a superb player at this level; Joey O’Brien has been a quiet revelation at right-back, at last injury-free and, against Watford, a goalscorer for the first time since January 2005. If new captain Kevin Nolan hasn’t yet quite justified his £4m price tag, then the Hammers’ opponents should be more worried than Allardyce – it’s surely only a matter of time.
Nolan and Taylor are integral members of a midfield that, even shorn of Scott Parker, is the strongest in the division. Arsenal loanee Henry Lansbury has been dovetailing neatly with Mark Noble, impressing enough for Arsene Wenger to take time out from trying to teach his beleaguered side the basics of defending and offer him a contract extension. And then there’s the budget Beckham, Spuds outcast David Bentley, to come in on the right and provide the ammunition for the reinvigorated Carlton Cole and his stand-in, Norwegian battering ram John Carew.
After losing to Kenny Miller’s injury-time strike for Cardiff on the opening weekend, the Hammers recovered to go seven games unbeaten in the league. That run was brought to an end by Ipswich on Tuesday, old boy Lee Bowyer waiting until the 89th minute to give Fat Sam the sort of slap across the chops us Newcastle fans would love to administer. “We thought we had learned our lesson about conceding late goals but clearly we haven’t“, he moaned post-match. That should be as much of an encouragement for Palace, whose three-goal blast against Brighton came in the final ten minutes, as the vociferous Holmesdale Fanatics – but I suspect that on Saturday their visitors’ superior nous and quality will prove to be a bit too much.