Crystal Palace are drifting into a relegation fight for which they seem ill-prepared
Crystal Palace haven’t won in the Premier League in 2023, and although they’ve barely moved in the league table, they’re drifting towards a relegation fight.
For those Crystal Palace supporters who’d made the trip to Birmingham, the scene upon the full-time whistle at Villa Park on Saturday afternoon was wearyingly familiar. Since winning at Bournemouth on New Year’s Eve, they’ve failed to win in eight consecutive Premier League matches and been knocked out of the FA Cup. In this rotten spell, they have scored six goals and conceded 12.
And yet again, it wasn’t so much that Palace were bad against Aston Villa, more that they were…inert. They failed to register a shot on target all game after having a goal disallowed early on, had a player sent off, and ended up losing 1-0 thanks to a first-half own goal. They don’t show you much of this in amongst the montages of smiling, face-painted young people so beloved by cable sports broadcasters.
Crystal Palace remained in 12th place in the Premier League table for the seventh successive week, but hidden within this stasis have been some very significant shifts. When the club game broke up for its winter break in November, Palace were in 11th place in the Premier League, but were only four points shy of fifth-placed Manchester United. They may only have dropped one place in the league in the 12 weeks since, but that gap to fifth is now 15 points. European qualification seemed a possibility then; it certainly doesn’t now.
It’s inevitable, when form takes a turn for the worse, that fans will start to look down the league table rather than up. Not only are Crystal Palace just five points above the Premier League’s relegation places, but they’re only six off the very bottom of the table, which looks all the worse because they’re already just one place off the bottom of the Premier League 2023 table, and with little hope of immediate improvement with their next three games coming against Manchester City, Brighton and Arsenal.
There are always, of course, reasons for hope. Palace beat Manchester City in 2018 and 2021, and Arsenal in 2022, 2019 and 2017. There is a tedious semantic debate over whether it strictly counts as a ‘derby’ or not, but if we can all agree that it at the very least matters every bit as much to the supporters of both clubs, then the Brighton fixture is the sort of game from which they can take three points against the run of form. There are always reasons for hope.
The problem for Crystal Palace is that much of this seems to be hope rather than expectation. Palace supporters have seen comparatively little to fill them with confidence that this team is equipped for such fights over the last few weeks. And those upcoming fixtures are daunting; City and Arsenal are head to head for the league title; Brighton may be chasing Champions League football and eager to put down a marker of the gap currently between the two teams.
And while it’s possible to argue that their three fixtures after that – Leicester, Leeds and Southampton – look more ‘comfortable’, we’ll be into April by then and quite likely still with a number of clubs scrapping with ever-increasing desperation for the precious, precious points to guarantee themselves another year of safety. Those fixtures start to look considerably less predictable for being in the last ten games of the season.
On top of all that, there’s the Wilfried Zaha position. Zaha’s contract expires in the summer and there has been little sign that he has any interest in signing a new one, and with bigger clubs circling it seems as likely as not that he will be leaving the club for the second time, come the end of the season. Certain players are just important to a club, and Zaha fits that category for Crystal Palace. His loss would be greater than the six Premier League goals he’s scored this season.
Palace have been struggling in front of goal all season, claiming just 21 in their 26 league games to date; only Wolves, Nottingham Forest, Everton and Southampton have scored fewer. On top of Zaha’s six, only three other players – Odsonne Eduoard, Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise – have scored more than one league goal this season.
And as is conventional under such circumstances, attention therefore starts to turn to the manager, and while Patrick Vieira remains broadly popular amongst Palace supporters, questions are starting to be asked. But even if Vieira may be struggling, offloading him wouldn’t make any sense this late in the season. Palace will have seen the difficulties encountered by Leeds United and Southampton after getting rid of Jesse Marsch and Nathan Jones, and that was February rather than March. Even if the club did think they’d given Vieira a fair go but that it isn’t working out, who would they bring in at this late stage who could turn things around?
Relegation is a challenge at the best of times, but Palace also have to deal with the redevelopment of Selhurst Park’s main stand. Chairman Steve Parish confirmed as long ago as December 2017 that relegation would not affect the project going ahead, but it’s a further headache that the club could do without if revenues were to shrink upon relegation.
It feels like a lot to rest upon the shoulders of ‘there will be three worse teams than us this season’, especially when you’re one place off the bottom of the form table, and with three of your trickiest games of the season coming up next, one after the other.
With six points separating nine clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League table, things are remarkably congested and Crystal Palace have some of the worst momentum. They are very much at risk of drifting into a relegation fight which wouldn’t have been on anybody’s minds just a few weeks ago. Are they prepared for this sort of scrap?
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