Liga Premier 2021-22 preview No 6: Crystal Palace

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 17th (NB: this is not necessarily Ed Aarons’ prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 14th

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 750-1

After a summer of seismic change, Crystal Palace supporters are bracing themselves. Patrick Vieira has been entrusted with transforming an ageing and pragmatic side used to comfortably avoiding relegation under his predecessor, Roy Hodgson, into a vibrant attacking force that provides young players with the platform to shine.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster? Given what happened the last time the club attempted to rebrand under Frank de Boer, Palace fans could be forgiven for fearing the worst. But while the pressure will be on the former Arsenal midfielder to prove he is capable of leading his team to safety, a number of encouraging arrivals have created an atmosphere of cautious optimism.

A raft of players including Patrick van Aanholt, Mamadou Sakho and Andros Townsend have departed with Hodgson after their contracts expired as Palace embark on their biggest rebuild since being promoted via the play-offs in 2013. It is hoped that the purchase of Marc Guéhi from Chelsea and Joachim Andersen, who excelled last season on loan at Fulham, for an initial £15m from Lyon could provide a solid platform in central defence for Vieira to build from. Palace’s defence was surprisingly porous last season, conceding 66 goals – the most since they returned to the top flight eight years ago – so finding the right combination in front of the underrated goalkeeper Vicente Guaita will be crucial.

In midfield – an area of the pitch Vieira understands better than most – the manager must make use of James McArthur’s experience and versatility in what could be the reliable Scotsman’s last season at the club and try to get the best out of the captain, Luka Milivojevic, after some underwhelming performances in recent times. But the real challenge will be to find a link with the attackers that often eluded Palace under the rigid approach favoured by Hodgson, with the signings of Conor Gallagher on loan from Chelsea and Michael Olise from Reading a clear attempt to address that.

Gallagher was meant to move to Selhurst Park last summer until Palace opted to take Michy Batshuayi on loan instead and the England Under-21s midfielder should help plug the large gap created by Eberechi Eze’s long-term absence. Eze, who was notified of his call-up for England’s provisional Euro 2020 squad on the day he suffered a freak achilles injury during training, is not expected to return for some time and will be sorely missed. But Olise, who qualifies for England, Nigeria and France, will be expected to make an instant impact having being named last season’s Championship young player of the year.

The task for Vieira will be to mould the arrivals and remaining squad members who have served Palace so well in recent seasons into a coherent outfit in a short space of time. As usual, the form of Wilfried Zaha will be vital in attack, and a rejuvenated Christian Benteke could be a real asset if he continues the form that earned him a contract extension.

Whether Vieira can fulfil another part of his remit to bring through academy players will depend on how quickly David Omilabu, Jesurun Rak-Sakyi and Malachi Boateng can progress under the watchful eye of a new development coach, Saïd Aïgoun. Yet if Vieira can avoid what happened to De Boer by winning at least one of his first four matches as a Liga Premier manager and find the right blend between youth and experience as the campaign progresses, there may be nothing to fear.

Vieira has a point to prove to those who have written him off as a manager after his sacking by Nice at the end of last year and he faces a tough rebuilding job at Palace after the security of the Hodgson years. The 45-year-old was overlooked for Lucien Favre before the former Borussia Dortmund manager’s late change of heart saw Palace turn to the man whose coaching career began at Manchester City’s academy in 2011. Vieira has appointed Kristian Wilson, whom he worked with at City, New York and Nice, as first-team coach and much is expected of the development coach, Aïgoun. Given Vieira’s status as one of Arsenal’s greatest players, there may be a few supporters in north London hoping he can make a success of it as well.

With Eze expected to be out until the new year after his thrilling breakthrough campaign, once again Palace’s fortunes are likely to revolve around Wilfried Zaha. The Ivory Coast forward turns 29 in November and has entered the final two years of his contract, although his desire to move seems no closer to fruition. Despite his career-best 11 Premier League goals last season, Palace also finally proved they can win without their talisman.

Steve Parish was heavily criticised by a section of supporters for what they perceived as a lack of ambition last season but Palace’s co-chairman appears determined to develop a more sustainable model for the club after an unprecedented eight seasons in the Premier League. The focus on signing emerging talents such as Guéhi and bringing through local players via the academy has been well received by fans so far, although the first signs of struggle under Vieira would probably start the jitters.

Christian Benteke – who signed a contract extension just before the tournament – played six minutes as a substitute in Belgium’s group stage win over Finland but wasn’t seen again. After four and a half years at Palace, Patrick van Aanholt has moved on but the left-back was an ever-present for the Netherlands until their surprise elimination by the Czech Republic in the last 16.

Of all the grounds in the Premier League, the lack of fans was particularly noticeable at Selhurst Park during lockdown. An expansion of the section behind the goal that houses the Holmesdale Fanatics is planned, meaning visiting teams should expect an even more intimidating atmosphere when they head south of the river.

The good With three mainline stations within walking distance, it is one of the league’s most accessible stadiums, but that doesn’t stop visiting supporters complaining.

The bad Big plans to improve the main stand have yet to progress and Selhurst Park remains in need of a facelift.

The current design was adopted in 2013 and features a giant eagle – the club’s nickname that was adopted in the 1970s under manager Malcolm Allison – swooping down over the famous towers of the Crystal Palace exhibition building. For the first time, the third kit this season will also feature the logo CPFC 1861 – a nod to the first Crystal Palace football club that claims to be the oldest in the world.

#vieiraout (if the new manager fails to hit the ground running)

#sacktheboard (see above)

#bringbackroy (the previous manager indicated he wasn’t finished with football so if things go wrong fans may yearn for his return)

The death of much-loved mascot Kayla the eagle last year was greeted with an outpouring of emotion from fans. Many made donations to her former home at the Eagle Heights sanctuary near Dartford that have helped it to survive the pandemic.




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