After a fortnight free from Premier League football for both Palace and Watford, play resumes at Selhurst Park on Saturday afternoon in what will undoubtedly be a hard-fought contest between two sides working towards the same end game; survival.
Watford, I grant, are significantly closer to realising their goal than Palace currently are, largely thanks to their impressive start to the season. Watford sat as high as 7th well into December before coming unstuck a little, failing to pick up quite as many points as they did in the first 14 or 15 games. Nevertheless, they still sit 13th, a position that Mazarri will be keen to improve on in order to avoid the managerial revolving door smacking his backside as he’s leaving Vicarage road for the summer.
As for Palace, well the last two games have been a refreshing change of pace from the seemingly perpetual downward spiral we found ourselves in. When a new manager joins the club you hope for a reaction, a bounce. Sadly for us that bounce, if there was one at all, bore more resemblance to the kind of bounce a sumo-wrestler would be capable of as opposed to Zebedee, for example.
These last two games have seen us at least begin to turn the corner, first beating Middlesbrough before a convincing display at West Brom saw us run out 2-0 winners. They were great wins, important wins, but while they may have improved our predicament in the short term we’ve still got a lot to do to ensure we’re not leapfrogged by Brighton next season. We may be 6 points better off than we were three weeks ago but we’re still 17th and just a point clear of 18th placed Hull.
Every win at this stage of the season is important but this game could prove to be a tipping point for Palace. The reason for that is obvious: the fixture list.
If we lose on Saturday we go into April, a month that looks as appetising as the fish course on a long-haul flight, on the back of a loss – there’s a big difference between that and going in undefeated in three. During April we will play Chelsea, Arsenal & Liverpool and that’s before you even consider we also play Southampton, who we always lose to, Burnley and a newly-rejuvenated Leicester. Oh, and a rescheduled fixture against Tottenham.
We’ll play Leicester just after their Champions League quarter-final second leg so they could be in the semi-finals or be freshly knocked out of their European adventure – I’m not sure which one I’d prefer. May doesn’t look any better, with two trips to Manchester looming, one of which is on the final day of the season. There are two or three games after Watford that we can pinpoint as places to pick up all three points but they are few and far between and may not be enough if we don’t pick up all three points on Saturday
In summary then, we’ll face 4 of the top 5 sides in the league along with the reigning champions in a month in which we’ll play a total of 7 games. We’ll have to rotate the squad, we’ll have to endure losses and near misses against the big boys. That being said, I can’t help but feel that if we beat Watford we’ll go into the Chelsea game on a high and perhaps look a little more like the Crystal Palace of old, the team that went to the big boys and gave them a run for their money, the Crystal Palace that in 20 short minutes ensured Scousers everywhere would continue to be ridiculed for their nostalgic talk of titles.
In terms of our points tally this weekend’s fixture could prove to be crucial come the end of the season. There are five ‘winnable’ games left this season: Southampton, Leicester, Burnley, Hull and this weekend’s game against Watford. We have 25 points as things stand and I would imagine the safety line is around the 36/37 mark. The arithmetic is simple: we have to win four games between now and the end of the season to reach such a tally which means that if we lose this weekend we must win all four of those games. Lose to Southampton and we’ll absolutely have to beat one of the top 6, or draw against three of them.
We may sit outside of the relegation zone with a game in hand but you must put that into context. When you do so, this becomes a must-win game, make no mistake about it because while Watford can’t mathematically relegate us, they can deal us a significant blow. The fans will be up for the challenge however, I have no doubt that Selhurst Park will be rocking once again, spirits renewed after a fabled home win finally materialised a couple of weeks ago. Let’s make it two from two.