Crystal Palace were 2-1 winners at Southampton yesterday with Eberechi Eze and Wilfried Zaha scoring their goals.
Here are ANDREW MCSTEEN’S four takeaways from the match
VIEIRA PROTECTING HIS ASSETS, THEN UNLEASHING THEM
When Palace manager Patrick Vieira announced his squad for this match there was one glaring omission from the starting 11 – Wilfried Zaha.
For just the second time in the Premier League this season, the Ivory Coast international was named on the bench – an unfamiliar place for him during his time in SE25.
The first time under Vieira was last October when he was on the bench at home to Newcastle. This was following his recovery from picking up an illness on international duty and having missed the previous match against Arsenal.
“Wilfried is an important player for us,” said Vieira pre-Saints. “It took time a bit for him to recover from all the kicks he received against Leeds. He’s on the bench and will be ready to come on.”
It was a strange sight seeing Zaha with a bib on, warming up during the first half on the side of the pitch and then again at half-time. But the importance of him to Palace is well-known to both fans and non-fans of the club and that was in evidence yet again.
Vieira took the opportunity to protect Zaha’s ankles for 64 minutes before introducing them, and him, to action.
That action was decisive. Zaha playing a hero’s role, turning the too-tight Jan Bednarek on the edge of the Saints box in additional time to slot home expertly and seal three points for his side, the Eagles talisman running to the ecstatic away fans with his customary wide smile.
With 13 goals now this season for Zaha it continues to be his best-ever season return and like a fine wine, he is getting better with age.
All Palace fans will have been toasting him on Saturday evening, as they have done for many years previously.
FIRST HALF WOES LEAD TO SECOND HALF TURNAROUND
Southampton was the fifth game in a row that the Eagles had not scored in the first half and fourth they had scored in the second only after going behind, but no-one will mind that with the victory.
At St Mary’s, a strange first 45 saw chances arise, but the final, telling ball couldn’t quite make it through, a lack of cutting edge a familiar story for Palace over previous seasons.
Uncharacteristic misplaced passes, mis-controlled balls and three yellow cards for Jean-Philippe Mateta, Joel Ward and James McArthur added to the sloppy nature of Vieira’s side in the first half. Even the gaffer himself was not in his usual pose of standing on the edge of the technical area, preferring to sit down. It was all a bit strange.
Whatever the Frenchman said at half-time made a difference with an improved, more alert and organised Palace side coming to terms with the game.
Vieira’s substitutions could be said to have turned the game. Firstly, taking Mateta off for Zaha in the 64th minute, then 10 minutes later Michael Olise coming on for Jeffrey Schlupp
Eze’s equaliser, with Clyne almost on the Saints goal-line was a direct result of that first change, and the second change, plus a third, with Will Hughes coming on for Eze, helped lead to that Zaha winner.
NEVER-ENDING SUPPORT WITNESSES CLOSE-UP EZE WORLD-CLASS STRIKE (AND ZAHA TOO)
Last week it was Newcastle away, this week Southampton away, the north and south of the Premier League visited in 10 days for the travelling Eagles support.
With just a top-half place to play for over the remaining five games of the season, the near fully-packed visiting fans section at St Mary’s was a blur of yellow, red and blue with non-stop chanting from the first minute to the 90th minute.
Those who travelled down to the south coast were basked in sunshine for the whole match and saw all three goals in the match scored in front of them. They would have had a lovely angle of the Eze equaliser but, unfortunately, the goalscorer ran to the opposite – and Saints – corner to celebrate.
That goal was the first of the season for the 23-year-old Greenwich-born Eze and it was a peach as he connected with a deep, pinpoint Clyne cross to delightfully slot home with anger against England’s Fraser Forster.
It now appears his injury woes are behind him and the Palace faithful can look forward to a full season with him in 2022-23.
And then they also were treated to that Zaha magic.
TOP 10 FINISH BACK ON TRACK
At 1-0 down, the side from SE25 were looking at a five-point difference to Newcastle United in 10th. The win saw the Eagles in 12th spot, on 41 points, just two behind the team from the north-east with a game in hand.
With a positive goal difference, the only one outside of the top eight and seventh best in the league, it may as well mean an extra point come the end of the season.
While teams around them like Leicester and Villa – who Palace face next weekend – may have games in hand, Vieira’s men have the points in the bank and have, perhaps, a refreshed impetus for a top half finish.
Despite everyone around the club just talking about putting in performances game-by-game and not a top-10 finish as the goal, it is clear that if they did achieve that top-10 spot, this, combined with a FA Cup semi-final and rotation of an older squad into a young, attacking one, combined with a new manager unproven in the Premier League would mean one of the biggest successes for the club in recent years.
However, having the goal of finishing above ninth-placed rivals Brighton, who are four points ahead having played a game more will be of equal, if not greater, importance for many supporters of the club.