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It was a story of returning players and a rare win against Huddersfield in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday evening. Mamadou Sakho made his first appearance as a permanent Crystal Palace player, Pape Souare returned after a catastrophic car crash nearly a year ago to the day and Julian Speroni was restored to the starting line-up for the first time since the last cup game.
Mamadou Sakho looked every bit the calm, commanding figure that was so instrumental in our escape last season, which was fantastic to see. Restoring the confidence of the team has to be Roy’s primary job, it’s the uncertainty and fragility that is the root of so many of our problems, but Mamadou Sakho exudes quality and is so self-assured that he is a calming influence on everyone around him. Both he and Tomkins dominated the Huddersfield attack in the first half and it was only after he and others began to tire that they got a bigger foothold in the game. It was a welcome sight and a fantastic return.
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Julian Speroni also returned to the starting lineup for the first time since the Ipswich game. His shot-stopping was excellent but he’ll be disappointed with his distribution which twice led to real chances and put a question mark over an otherwise solid display. Has he given Roy something to think about? Perhaps, but I’d be surprised if he starts against Manchester City – rightly or wrongly I expect him to keep the faith with Hennessey.
Jairo Riedewald also returned to the team, this time employed in the middle of the park as opposed to in defence. I’ve been far from impressed with the midfield selection so far – it’s no secret I don’t think Jason Puncheon should be starting games when everyone else is fit and that is the case now. However, much like the goalkeeping selection, I’d like to see a change but would be surprised to actually see it materialise – successive managers have stuck with Puncheon for reasons which are frankly beyond me.
The real story of the evening was the return of Pape Souare. A year ago he was air-lifted to hospital after a nasty car crash and there were question marks over whether he would ever kick a football competitively again. Last night he achieved just that after months of rehabilitation and it was a fantastic moment – it reminded me of the fabulous reception that Glenn Murray received when he returned from the injury which kept him out of the first half of Crystal Palace’s season.
The long and the short of it is that it was a decent performance, with plenty of positives both with respect to the players that figured and the performance of those players. As for any concrete conclusions, it is far too early to be talking about the start of a ‘turnaround’ when we travel to the Etihad on the weekend and Old Trafford next. The target, as I said after Southampton, has to be to compete in the next few games to make it difficult and the key to doing that is being astute defensively.
Mamadou Sakho brought a calmness to the defence and formed an encouraging partnership with James Tomkins against Huddersfield. As a result, I’d like to see the two of them start alongside Timothy Fosu-Mensah at right full-back on the weekend. Joel Ward has been a fantastic servant to the club, but that shouldn’t be enough to get him into the team. He’s looked increasingly out of depth in the last couple of seasons, he’s beaten far too easily and far too often for my liking and doesn’t possess the kind of pace that’ll get him out of trouble.
Fosu-Mensah does, and against a dynamic Manchester City attack, we could need every bit of pace we can possibly get. With that trio, Patrick van Aanholt at left back and Milivojevic screening the back four we’ve got a strong defensive unit on which we can look to build.