As the Eagles ended the season in fine style with a home win, for the final time this season, here is what we learnt.
1. Plenty has already been said about Julian Speroni and Jason Puncheon, but it’s difficult for words to do justice as to how pivotal both players have been to Palace’s recent success. If actions are anything to go by, the fact that virtually all four stands at Selhurst Park – the Bournemouth end aside – remained full for the lap of appreciation was testament to the impact Speroni and Puncheon had on so many Palace-supporting people. The stack of combined goals, saves and celebrations were in fact just a small, tangible part of what the pair brought to Palace. Beyond that, both men bridged the gap that so often exists between players and fans, and their absence will be sorely felt in every corner of the club.
2. Had Bournemouth watched Palace’s game against Cardiff City last week, they might have realised that winding up Wilfried Zaha isn’t the best policy to follow. So when Jefferson Lerma and Adam Smith took it upon themselves to dangle their respective rods in front of the Eagles’ mercurial wide man, it was only likely to end one way. Visibly rumbled, Zaha channelled his rage into positive energy in a way he might not have done four or five months ago. Picking up the ball on the left, he first swept past a floundering Nathaniel Clyne, leaving the former Palace man flapping like a fish desperately trying to find its way back to water. He then knocked the ball beyond a vindictive Lerma, whose own efforts to exact revenge proved fruitless as Zaha somehow rearranged the trajectory of his legs to prevent them colliding with one another and send him tumbling to the floor. Then, in the final act, Zaha poked the ball in the direction of Andros Townsend, and had already started to set off on his chest-pumping, ear-cupping victory lap before his teammate calmly stroked the ball into the bottom corner. As TEB’s very own Sam Smith put it, that sequence of play summed up Wilfried Zaha in half a minute. Should that be Wilf’s final contribution in a Palace shirt – which, I’m sure, we all hope it isn’t – then it couldn’t have been composed any better by Beethoven himself.
3. Luka Milivojevic has copped a lot of unwarranted stick this season, when in reality he has been one of the Eagles’ most consistent performers. Left slightly hanging by Palace’s failure to adequately replace Yohan Cabaye, the Serbian has spent much of the campaign trying to fill a number of roles in a midfield that has never been truly settled. The Serbian would concede that he endured a shaky start to the season, but since then he has been back to his understated, efficient best, and ended as one of only three outfield Premier League players to feature in every minute of every game. What’s more is that Milivojevic has scored 12 crucial goals – ten of them penalties – that have made a significant difference to where Palace have ended up in the table. Against Bournemouth he once again quietly influenced the game, kept Palace ticking over and offered himself as a shield between Zaha and anyone trying to get to his star player. So here’s to Palace’s unsung – and sometimes under-appreciated – alternative player of the season, who has established himself as one of the top defensive midfielders in the bottom half, and who the Eagles are fortunate to have as their captain.
4. It might have taken until the last game of the season against a naively expansive Bournemouth side, but Palace may have finally found a way to get the best out of Max Meyer. Sunday was the best in a string of decent performances from the German, who looks like he has now acclimatised to the added pace and physicality of the Premier League. The sheer chaos of the match suited Meyer in the way it afforded him pockets of space to get on the ball, but what was most pleasing was how rarely he wasted possession, and how often he got himself back into position to win the ball back. It’s important to urge caution after a one-off goal-fest at the end of the campaign, but with a full pre-season under his belt there is reason to believe that we might be treated to Meyer’s full potential next year.
5. It’s probably time to swallow our pride and congratulate Roy Hodgson on a job well done. The former England manager was perhaps the victim of his own success, safely guiding Palace to their best ever Premier League points haul with barely a hint of a prolonged stay in the relegation zone. The majority of Palace’s seasons in the top flight – including Hodgson’s first in charge – have been characterised by success in the face of adversity. However, the absence of any of the latter has perhaps made this season’s achievements seem muted, when in reality they have shown real signs of progress. Granted, Palace’s away form has often masked their under par performances at home, but it is perhaps a mark of the respect teams now have for the Eagles that they arrive in South London to stifle rather than attack. A disappointing season at Selhurst Park? For sure. An overall step in the right direction? Absolutely.