Given Chelsea’s form, their trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday might be Crystal Palace’s least daunting task between now and the March international break, as the Eagles embark upon a devilishly tough sequence of fixtures.
Having just come off a kind 10-game run that featured games against all of the current bottom eight, the next 10 include six against big-six outfits, as well as high-flying Newcastle and Brighton.
It is not ideal, then, that Palace have handicapped themselves with something of a standing start, momentum drained by a cheap FA Cup exit and three League defeats in four either side of the World Cup.
On the face of it, their predicament does not seem one of peril: sat 12th, Patrick Vieira’s side are in the same position, and with two more points, than they were at this stage of last season. But dig a little deeper, and there is cause for concern.
Selhurst Park, one of the division’s most partisan away venues, has been strangely penetrable, Palace already having lost as many home games this season as they did in the whole of last.
Goals have been the main failing, with just one per game on average, seven fewer than after 17 matches last year and only two — against Bournemouth — in their last four games. The lack of a clinical striker has been blamed (Odsonne Edouard has three League goals, Jordan Ayew and Jean-Philippe Mateta only one apiece), but expected goals metrics suggest Palace are getting more or less what they deserve for their creative endeavours.
The problem, like just about all of those on-field for the south Londoners at present, stems from a midfield notably weaker than that of a year ago, with Conor Gallagher and Cheikhou Kouyate gone and James McArthur injured.
Eberechi Eze is shouldering the creative burden alone, but his attacking output has not yet lived up to Gallagher’s, nor does he bring the balance of the all-action Chelsea man going the other way. Cheick Doucoure’s arrival has been the one improvement, but any injury to the summer signing would turn a problem area into a crisis zone.
Having failed to back Vieira sufficiently in the transfer window following the progress of his debut campaign, Palace risk reversing trajectory unless they can spring several upsets in the coming weeks.
Last season, belief was boosted by statement wins over Arsenal, Tottenham and both Manchester clubs, but the Frenchman is yet to see his team beat a top-half opponent this term. That trend will have to be bucked soon.