Crystal Palace are probably feeling pretty good about themselves going into Monday night’s clash with Manchester City. Three wins from their last four games have seen them surge to a comfortable mid-table spot in the Premier League, as well as progressing to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
With no relegation worries and a possible Wembley trip to come, it’s no wonder Patrick Vieira looked so relaxed in his press conference this week. The Frenchman’s Palace rebuild is well ahead of schedule and his stock with the fans has never been higher. In that context, he could perhaps be forgiven for treating a fixture against the champions – in his own words, one of the best teams in Europe – as a bit of a free hit.
But Vieira doesn’t think like that.
The Eagles boss has been preaching the importance of consistency all season long and there is simply no way he will allow his team to take their foot off the gas, even with a huge FA Cup tie to come at the weekend. A home game against the league leaders under the lights at Selhurst is a tantalising prospect and one that is sure to focus the mind of anyone who might have one eye on the next game. So what can we expect to see?
Will the run as City’s bogey team continue?
Palace have taken eight points from their last nine games against the CItyzens. That is a very impressive return when you consider the extent to which Pep Guardiola’s side have dominated the Premier League in that period.
Those nine games stretch over four and a half seasons, during which time City have picked up three league titles, and two of the three highest points totals in the history of the league. For a struggling Palace team to take nearly a point per game off them while they’ve been routinely blowing the rest of the league away is an achievement of some note.
That impressive record continued earlier this campaign with a surprise 2-0 victory at the Etihad, and supporters may be sceptical about the prospect of lightning striking twice in the same season. But Palace are bang in form, have almost all their key players available, and have nothing to lose. There is no reason to think that Palace taking something from the game is impossible.
Palace will look to replicate Etihad blueprint
Manchester City have lost three league games this season - that Palace win in the Autumn, and a Tottenham Hotspur double. In all of these games, the game plan from their opponents has been to sit deep with almost everyone behind the ball, allowing City to probe away in midfield, before turning the ball over and transitioning to attack at lightning speed.
Palace will surely look to replicate that approach here, which could give the illusion that they are reverting back to last season’s safety-first tactics.
Don’t be fooled: this team is far superior to last year’s vintage, carrying genuine threat when progressing the ball up the pitch, and they have a number of different weapons to pick from.
The question is which of them Vieira will choose.
So who will start up front?
In Spurs’ recent 3-2 triumph at the Etihad, Harry Kane produced a majestic performance, frequently dropping deep into central areas to receive the ball, before turning and picking passes over the top of the defence. Palace doesn't have anyone of Kane’s class to call on, but their best bet may be to use their own academy superstar in a similar vein.
Wilfried Zaha has started in a central position upfront a few times this season (including away at City), and of all Palace’s forwards, he probably has the skillset best suited to the job here.
With the team looking to get runners forward quickly when they get the ball, Zaha’s strength, intelligence and underrated passing skills could make him the perfect candidate for the Kane role.
This would free up a space for hard-working Jordan Ayew, or perhaps Odsonne Edouard, to start in a wide position. Vieira has shown that he isn’t afraid to rotate, and breaking the news to the in-form Jean-Philippe Mateta shouldn’t be a barrier.
A major test for Andersen and Guehi
This game will be an enormous test for the whole team and none more so than the back four. Man City’s array of attacking talents are incredibly good at working one-twos on the wide fringes of the box and creating chances for cutbacks across the face of the goal.
While Palace will likely look to stop these at source by pressing in midfield, it’s inconceivable that City won’t get around the back at least once or twice.
This is where Marc Guehi and Joachim Andersen will need their positioning and concentration levels to be at 100% to block the low cross or head away anything floated in from further out wide. Both have been incredibly impressive in their debut seasons at Selhurst Park, but it doesn’t get any tougher than this.
Palace will need luck that they haven’t had this year
There is simply no margin for error against the champions, and Vieira knows that every player will have to have to turn in a 10/10 performance for them to stand any chance.
More than that, Palace will need the bit of luck that hasn’t always been forthcoming this season. They might play the best game of their lives, and City could still win it with a sublime bit of skill from Riyadh Mahrez or an unstoppable 30-yarder by Kevin De Bruyne. The Eagles’ boss is always keen to stress the importance of performances as well as results, but surely even he would be happy with an undeserved point – or perhaps even three – from this one.