Return Of The Sak
Selhurst rose in appreciation at the end of a hard earned victory against Burnley on Saturday. In a game that should have been out of sight at half time and one that was not without its scares, the three points against a flying Clarets felt huge.
But there was something significant. Wilfried Zaha, the darling and talisman of SE25, was subdued throughout the ninety minutes. So often the cream of a performance, he had flittered in and out of the game and struggled to get going amidst Burnley’s targeting of him.
The platitudes were reserved for others, notably Bakary Sako, who under the expert tutelage and instruction of Roy Hodgson have found their voice amidst a squad so often considered a one-man force.
Sako was the last to leave the pitch at full time, as chants of his name rained down upon him. It was as endearing a performance as ever had been seen at Selhurst Park. A superbly taken goal in the first half that handed Palace the spoils was nearly followed up with a van-Bastenesque volley that would have graced any highlight reel for years to come.
He chased, harried, fought and battled against a resolute Burnley back four, and linked up brilliantly with Benteke and those around him, the two forwards combining for his goal. Dropping deeper later in the game, his work rate continued unabated until the moment Michael Oliver brought the game to an end.
Few would have envisioned such a transformation of the Malian’s fortunes. Sako came to epitomise the flaws in Palace’s summer transfer dealings. Having failed to properly bolster the squad with striking options in the event of a Benteke absence, his viability as being the answer left little hope in the minds of the SE25 faithful.
Three vital league goals later, and it is akin to witnessing the second coming of Christ. Such a compliment might even be disparaging to Sako as one can scarcely believe Jesus Christ could hit a volley as sweetly as Bakary did just before half time.
It goes without saying that immense credit for the turnaround in the club’s fortunes lies at the door of Roy Hodgson. With a mounting injury list going into a game in which Zaha was largely a bystander, the renaissance effect he has had on the likes of Sako, Martin Kelly and the ever-superb James McArthur is a joy to behold.
McArthur, so often rubbished last season, graced the game with an incredible composure that allowed him to find pockets of space as Palace looked to build an attack.
While Martin Kelly’s sprint and slide tackle on Jeff Hendrick in the Burnley corner will rightly get plaudits, his general performance alongside James Tomkins in central defence against the imposing Sam Vokes and slimy Ashley Barnes stemmed any opportunity Burnley had of getting back into the game.
Perhaps, most significantly, Hodgson has even managed to transplant a brain into Patrick van Aanholt. No mean feat for anyone unlucky enough to witness some of the Dutchman’s performances in the early part of the season.
Of course, it would be foolish to get ahead of ourselves. For all the excitement and plus points of the last twelve games which has ceded only one defeat, it was refreshing to hear Hodgson’s pragmatism come to the fore in his Match of the Day interview with Gary Lineker. While Palace are now five points clear of the drop zone, Hodgson does not have a short-term memory and is still firmly looking over his shoulder until such time safety is in black and white.
Where others failed, Hodgson has flourished. He has breathed a new lease of life into the club, into the squad and into a fanbase devoid of enthusiasm earlier this season. And while no-one is getting carried away just yet, I am off to get a tattoo of the great man’s face across my own, in the hope that I too might be able to inspire those around me in the same way the great man does.