Guardian writers’ predicted position: 12th (NB: this is not necessarily Dominic Fifield’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 15th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 750-1
Early August, with the top-flight season looming ever larger and an assessment of the state of play at Crystal Palace is far from straightforward. At first glance both club and squad would appear to be considerably stronger than a year ago. The ownership structure has been revamped to reflect heavy investment from the American businessmen Josh Harris and David Blitzer. There was encouragement, too, from an early summer splurge in the market that reinforced three previously troublesome sections of the side.
Even with the club’s transfer record having been eclipsed once already to secure a recent England international, the sense is the most significant addition is still to come. Palace cannot rest easily just yet. This team have arguably lacked a consistent goalscoring presence since Glenn Murray landed awkwardly in the Brighton penalty area in the first leg of the 2013 play-off semi-final and felt the ligaments in his right knee wrench. Strikers have since succeeded only in fits and starts, from a recovered Murray to an eager Dwight Gayle, the regularly hamstrung Marouane Chamakh to Connor Wickham, who, infuriatingly for all, has been just as injury prone. None has proved prolific.
Even those additions that were considered cost-effective gambles – Fraizer Campbell, Cameron Jerome, even Emmanuel Adebayor given the lack of a fee – never really paid off. They were probably risks worth taking, given Palace, still relatively new to this level and operating within the Premier League’s internal financial fair play guidelines, lacked the budget to splash cash. Yet, with the financial shackles now relaxed after three years in the elite and with the coffers bloated by the latest injection of television monies, ambition has been exposed. Back in the hierarchy’s post-season planning meetings, conducted in south London and on the Côte d’Azur, a belief had emerged that Palace’s intent might surprise a few. Eye-watering bids have duly been submitted for players from Merseyside to Marseille. The problem is, as yet, they have failed to land their man.
Instead, this summer has been transformed into a test of patience. Marseille accepted a bid of £31.6m for Michy Batshuayi, who subsequently joined Chelsea for slightly more. West Bromwich Albion were sounded out over the availability of Saido Berahino and once Stoke City had offered a deal worth £20m, Palace tried the Chelsea tactic and made clear they could submit one that would rise to £23m. Jeremy Peace, who has made a habit of knocking back interest in his much-coveted forward, was still not inclined to accept. Not yet, anyway. That situation is likely to be revisited now Diafra Sakho appears destined for The Hawthorns, for all that Palace’s first game of the season is against Albion.
The real intrigue lies with Christian Benteke, a player who will always be on the fringes of Jürgen Klopp’s plans but would appear ready-made for Palace’s favoured system. Liverpool are willing sellers at the right price. Palace initially offered a deal worth £25m and then upped that to £27m, plus add-ons – but the haggling has yet to yield agreement. It would probably be in all the parties’ interests to compromise and it is far from inconceivable Benteke and Berahino will start September at the south London club. With so many trying to save face, however, such transfers can be protracted affairs. Palace have simply been made to wait while pre-season friendlies offered reminders of their need as incisive approach play was too often undermined by a familiar lack of presence in the opponents’ box. Wickham is the only fit senior striker. Keshi Anderson and Freddie Ladapo, players plucked from non-league, are raw, not ready.
The intent to strengthen bodes well. Palace are commencing a fourth consecutive season in the top flight and they have never enjoyed a five-year spell at that level. It had been a quarter of a century since the same manager even led them into successive campaigns in the elite, with the team’s toils since the turn of the year enough to convince Alan Pardew of the need to refresh and revive. Palace under Steve Parish and the previous ownership structure had progressed year on year since 2010: from Championship survival to mid-table, promotion via the play-offs, then 11th- and 10th-place finishes at the higher level. Last season, with its early burst of form and second FA Cup final appearance, had briefly threatened to be the best yet. It ended up feeling like a reality check.
Pardew had offered a typically frank assessment while the Premier League campaign was fizzling out and long before Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard jettisoned those aspirations of a first major trophy in extra-time at Wembley. Before his team’s trip to Tyneside in April, the manager had surveyed the remaining games as “four fixtures to define our season either as one of the greatest Palace have ever had or as disappointing, if we lose the Cup final and finish in a low position”. Only one of those matches, at home to Stoke, was won. A 15th-place finish, which would have been cause for huge celebration only a few years ago, felt inadequate. The loss in the FA Cup final provided a numbing anticlimax to pursue the club into the summer. Pardew was probably proved right.
What grated was the sense this was a missed opportunity. There had been the early-season successes, the win at Stamford Bridge – albeit one made rapidly to look routine – and the steady progress that resulted in Palace spending Christmas Day level with Tottenham Hotspur and outside the top four only on goal difference. As meaningless a stat as it was, there was still something impressive about the 61 points accrued over the calendar year of 2015, a tally bettered by only five clubs. But if the rise was eye-catching, the collapse was almost cataclysmic. The league sequence from Boxing Day read two victories in 21 matches, a prolonged stretch of dismal form the club had not endured since groping blindly through nine months without a home win to finish bottom in 1998.
It was a reminder of the true depth of quality in a squad stretched by progress in both domestic cup competitions and how untimely injuries – Yannick Bolasie, Jason Puncheon, James McArthur and Wickham spent long periods on the sidelines – can derail even the most serene campaigns. “We have a lot of lessons to learn from this year,” Pardew had added before the 1-0 loss at St James’ Park. “Three years in the Premier League, and a Cup final, but people lose perspective about the size of this club. Our fans got carried away when we were flying at the top of the league with a fit squad and everything was good. We got injuries and our Cup run also affected that. We mustn’t let that happen to us again next year.”
It should be acknowledged that it was the hierarchy, rather than the supporters, who had sought to raise expectations, given their desire to reinvent this club. But now, with an opportunity to ward off a repeat collapse, they have been nothing but bold. The France No2 goalkeeper, Steve Mandanda, had been hugely impressive over nine years at Marseille and arrived for a bargain £1.4m, while James Tomkins – for £10m – has plenty of Premier League experience and, at 27, is a centre-half who will recognise the opportunity for regular game-time offered by a switch across the capital.
Andros Townsend’s transfer, for what most in the elite would consider a paltry £13.5m, was the first of the summer’s club record bids. Where Palace were so blunted by Bolasie’s absence last season, with the onus thrust on the impressive Wilfried Zaha to compensate, now they have options and pace aplenty from wide. There would appear to be greater depth and versatility. A setup boasting a new first-team coach in the former Colchester manager Kevin Keen – Andy Hughes, to Huddersfield Town, and John Salako have moved on – potentially possess the ability to tweak their tactical approach.
Pardew experimented with three at the back – a formation Wales ensured is suddenly en vogue – over their three-game trip to the US in pre-season and seemed keen, too, to explore how to use a strike partnership in attack. Palace supporters still salivate over the prospect of that pair being Benteke with Berahino. The weeks ahead will prove whether those aspirations are realistic.
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