Burnley The Barometer In Tough Fixture Run
As build up intensified for the visit of Liverpool on Saturday, one thing was palpably clear – Palace’s season is about to enter into one of its most crucial junctures.
The visit of Jurgen Klopp’s high flying Reds signified the first in what many are calling a horror run of home games in the Premier League, with ties against Manchester City, Southampton, Manchester United and Chelsea to follow. A daunting run of games for any side, amplified when you consider this is the stretch of games that leads into the festive period.
There’s a rule at TEB HQ: Don’t sell yourself down the river like the commercial retailers by shoving Christmas down people’s throats too early. For those of you who feel my mention of Christmas has altered your ability to prevent your blood from boiling, please direct your venom to the personal Twitter handle of editor @JayTheEagle.
But like it or not, it is hard to not cast minds ahead to what position Palace might find themselves in when they enter the ‘Festive Fury’ (© TEB). For the most pessimistic of Palace fan, it makes the Burnley tie a six-pointer, while the more optimistic of us will no doubt also see its importance.
With full foreboding about the fixture list, it was inevitable that the 4-2 defeat to Liverpool would stir emotions and worry in the hearts and minds of many.
There are still question marks about squad quality. It is almost monotonous to talk about the lack of depth, dips in form of some players, and the tactical ability of Alan Pardew to visibly impact a game with a shifting of ideas or approaches. Too often, as we saw with Palace’s struggles to deal with the Gegenpressing of Klopp’s side from the off yesterday, Palace seem one dimensional and reactive. Not until the second half, having three times fallen behind in the first, did Palace begin to get to full grips with their opponents.
Most worryingly, the nature of the goals conceded will be hard for many to swallow. Liverpool, they said, were the side that were most vulnerable defending set-pieces. Within forty-five minutes, they were gifted two of the most straightforward goals from routine set piece deliveries. It wasn’t very Palace. Neither was the nature at which marking was non-existent for Can’s opener, or at how the defensive shape was pulled asunder for Liverpool’s crucial fourth.
A lack of clean sheets and an increasing defensive weariness are becoming intrinsically part of the fabric of this current side.
That said, in spite of the disappointment of the defeat, there were some positives which should surely hold the side in good stead ahead of the dreaded run of tricky home ties. Palace created a number of good chances and caused Liverpool problems in a number of exchanges and before Firmino’s killer blow Palace could have been deservedly level.
There was a sense of fight that perhaps in tougher times of past was missing. Yohan Cabaye, criticised for a combination of fitness and interest at the beginning of the season, was booked for dissent as he assumed a more battling midfield role as James McArthur foraged forward. To see the side dig deep twice to peg Liverpool back was encouraging, and the appreciation of that was echoed by the decibel levels rising in Selhurst.
But while there are legitimate concerns about the defensive strength, there were times in open play where Palace defended well, particularly James Tomkins, whose confidence is growing with every game played. Faced with the abundance of pace and talent of the Liverpool front three, he was on hand with some decent tackles and touches to help stem the attacking tide. Dann and Tomkins weren’t helped by their fullbacks. While Ward came into the game more in the second half, Kelly being pulled out of position forced Tomkins to step left and allow Henderson to find Firmino in space. At a time when Palace were in the ascendancy, that was the killer blow.
Every Palace loss is disappointing. In a league that is getting increasingly competitive, it is as disappointing to lose to the champions as it is to a newly promoted side. A loss is a loss. But it is important to note that as disappointing as this loss is, it was at the hands of an extremely talented and attacking Liverpool side. For all the superlatives about how Klopp’s side are genuine title contenders, Palace ran them close. In those passages where Zaha was getting behind the full back and Benteke getting shots away, Palace will punish other teams.
The games ahead will be testing. Yesterday was exacerbated by the task that does lie ahead, but there is enough in this side to suggest they can put themselves on a decent platform by Christmas. That starts against Burnley next week, with a nod to ensuring the groundwork on defensive shape is laid during the week. The trip to Turf Moor will be a truer barometer of the task facing Pardew’s side than the game yesterday could ever be.