Welcome back from the last international break of the 2021-22 season. The World Cup field is nearly and there are plenty of current Arsenal players who could/should make their country's final squad. Bukayo Saka missed out on the England camp due to COVID and Aaron Ramsdale had to withdraw because of a hip injury. Lacazette hit a hat-trick in a friendly against Brentford’s B side. In the coming days, we should get official updates on their status for Monday’s match against Crystal Palace, as well as Takehiro Tomiyasu and any injuries picked up from international play. In the meantime let’s catch up on how things are going down at Selhurst Park.
Crystal Palace enters the weekend in 12th place in the Premier League, twelve points clear of the relegation zone and two points behind 9th place Aston Villa. They are undefeated in their last four league matches having given up just two goals during that stretch under Patrick Vieira’s leadership. It should be a difficult restart to the season for the Gunners.
We’ve brought back in The Eagles Beak to get up to date with Crystal Palace ahead of the match this weekend.
TSF: Last season Palace finished 14th and were in the same position when we spoke back in October. They currently sit 12th but are just two points behind ninth place. How high do you believe they can finish this season?
TEB: There are a few tough games still to navigate but we are sitting in a nice position and considering we were all expecting a transitional season under Patrick Vieira, it could well end up a pretty special one. Only once have we finished in the top ten and that was 10th place under Tony Pulis. I suspect we will end up finishing in a similar position to where we are now which would not be at all bad but a shot at the top ten is well within reach and a distinct possibility.
TSF: At that point in the season Michael Olise was beginning to make an impact off the bench. Now he has four goals and leads the team with eight assists. Are we even seeing the best of him yet?
TEB: He has been a real bright light for us this season and has been cleverly worked into the side over a period of time. We were all so looking forward to what Eberechi Eze could do this season before that horrid injury. So to see Olise being set free on the Premier League has been a joy to behold. He is a very special player indeed and there is certainly more to come from him. France has not wasted any time having called him up and played him in the under 21 side last week.
TSF: You add in Marc Guéhi, Odsonne Édouard, and the loan of Conor Gallagher and it’s quite the set of additions Vieira has made to this squad. How confident are fans at the moment that even if it isn’t this season, Vieira can turn Palace back into a consistent top ten team?
TEB: Patrick Vieira was the favourite to be the first manager sacked this season and there is no doubt that he faced a tough job with the number of exits in the summer. But that may well have played into his hands with the good work the club had already done with recruitments. This squad is far from the finished article and there is no doubt that Vieira will want some more tweaks to personnel in the summer but the signs this season have been very good and playing good football at the same time.
TSF: What is the latest in a potential full move for Conor Gallagher over the summer or has the upheaval at Chelsea completely muddied the waters?
TEB: That is very sketchy indeed and the likelihood is that after such a great season with Palace, there are plenty of suitors for him which may price us out of the market if Chelsea are mad enough not to want to keep him. I do believe the best that we can hope for is another season-long loan deal which may well suit both all parties - Chelsea continues to see progress with their player at Palace, Gallagher has hopes of being in the England squad for the World Cup and Palace get another season of who is going to be a real star of the future.
TSF: That was a massive FA Cup win over Everton. When is the last time Crystal Palace was in the semi-finals and how do you fancy their chances against Chelsea, without Gallagher?
TEB: Palace were in the semi-finals a few seasons back when we beat Watford to reach the final against United - the less said about the final the better! Gallagher will be a huge miss considering how good a season he has had, having said that, his teammates will hopefully use that to their advantage to get to the final. Whilst it is hard to replace the loanee, and we are not kidding ourselves about how big the task is to beat the current Champions League winners, we ran them close at Selhurst a little while back and it took a late goal for the visitors to take all three points. We are just hoping that the FA Cup this season has room for another underdog story.
TSF: It’s just two losses in their last 13 matches, and those coming to Liverpool and Chelsea. What have you seen in terms of tactics and performance that has Palace on such a strong run?
TEB: There was a lot of criticism of Vieira and his previous managerial roles when appointed Palace boss but I do think the appointment of the management team around him has been shrewd, with the likes of Osian Roberts, Kristian Wilson, and Said Aigoun being recruited and very well respected in the game. Vieira has got the side playing good football and to their strengths which has been a breath of fresh air this season. The solid defensive foundation allows the side to play with freedom and the possession statistics this season have been a vast improvement on previous seasons in the Premier League. It is a very welcome change and great to watch.
TSF: With all the exciting new and/or younger players in the squad this year, who is the player you feel is most overlooked at the moment by those outside of the Palace fanbase?
TEB: James McArthur - before the injury, he was superb at the start of the season and was instrumental to the side at the age he is, we thought he would start becoming a squad player more often than not. I would also mention Wilfried Zaha in dispatches because he gets so much criticism from opposing fans for a number of different things but when he is on his game he is so difficult to deal with.
TSF: Looking ahead to the summer transfer window, what will be the top priorities for Vieira and the club, both in terms of maintaining their best players and adding to the squad?
TEB: Defense will probably need looking at as there will be question marks over Nathaniel Clyne and Joel Ward - both have done a job but with Nathaniel Ferguson seemingly injured permanently since arriving from West Bromwich Albion, full-back will be an area of concern, including back up for the excellent Tyrick Mitchell. We also need ball-playing centre-backs for when Marc Guehi and Joachim Andersen are injured we do not have players that can come in and rely on doing the same job. James Tomkins is great but he is more of an old-school centre-back and is also made of glass. Vieira will most likely cast an eye over the central midfield options as McArthur cannot continue forever and is likely Luka Milivojevic and Jairo Reidewald will move on leaving Will Hughes and Cheikhou Kouyate as the options. There is also question marks over the future of Christian Benteke so it could be that we will be in the market for a striker to replace him, but that all remains to be seen.
TSF: What is your projected formation and lineup for Crystal Palace this weekend?
TEB: There are rumours of injuries on international duty for Wilfried Zaha and Michael Olise and they will not be risked with an FA Cup Semi-Final ahead but the formation will likely be the same, just with different personnel:
Guaita - Clyne, Andersen, Guehi, Mitchell - Hughes, Kouyate - Eze, Mateta, Ayew
TSF: And, finally, give us your prediction for the match this weekend.
TEB: I was expecting us to give you guys a good game but that has been tempered somewhat with the injury news this week. But with both teams seeing players coming back from a busy international break, I can see it being a 1-1 draw which will likely suit both heading into the run in to the end of the season.
Thanks once again to The Eagles Beak for taking some time to talk with The Short Fuse.