After recent underwhelming seasons in the top flight, the continent’s stars shouldn’t settle for another bottom-half finish in 2021/22
A decisive Eberechi Eze performance at Sheffield United on Saturday helped Crystal Palace to a comfortable and deserved 2-0 victory at Bramall Lane.
Perhaps more important for Roy Hodgson’s team was the fact that three points against the relegated Blades confirmed their Premier League status for next season.
Having gained promotion in 2013, the South London side will now compete for a ninth successive campaign in the top flight.
Was it ever really in doubt?
It seemed a formality before Eze’s goal and assist made things certain, as it was always going to take a massive downturn for the capital club to suffer the ignominy of finishing in the league’s bottom three.
Hodgson’s men — 11 points clear of Fulham before gameweek 35’s fixtures — probably needed to lose their remaining games, while the Cottagers had to pick up wins over Burnley, Southampton, Manchester United and Newcastle United.
Success for Palace in South Yorkshire didn’t matter anyway, as the West London club lost against Burnley on Monday night.
While it was a mathematical possibility, Hodgson’s team were never truly in danger of battling relegation.
Perhaps, therein lies the problem with Palace: an ambitionless PL side content with simply participating yearly.
As it stands, the Eagles will end this year in 13th spot, typical of their time in the big time since 13/14. Their average league finish since returning to top flight football eight years ago is 11, which is a fair reflection of how they’ve fared in the top tier.
Having initially flirted with becoming a top half side early doors — they ended 11th in 13/14 before finishing 10th the following season — Palace haven’t managed to match their 14/15 league performance since.
While it has to be noted that they accumulated one more point in 18/19 (49), there’s a feeling that maintaining their place among the country’s privileged sides shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all.
Even though they’ve become an established Premier League side, their supposed lack of ambition has led to constant rumours over Wilfried Zaha’s future at the club, although it has to be said that the Ivory Coast attacker has unashamedly always desired a move to one of the so-called top-six sides.
At 28, the likelihood of the ex-Manchester United winger getting that move appears to be fading.
He does have two years left on the five-year extension he signed in 2018 and the club may consider him a saleable asset this summer to aid their overdue rebuild.
Be that as it may, what if the Eagles hang on to the forward this summer either due to little or no interest in his services or by prising him out of the market yet again?
The Ivorian leads the African contingent in South London that includes Eze, Jordan Ayew, Jeffrey Schlupp and Cheikhou Kouyate, but only the winger can truly claim he’s outgrown the South London outfit.
Having said that, it is a jarring indictment of the club that, after only one season in the top flight, Eze’s slowly reaching that point where he may also consider himself better than simply settling for mid-table Premier League finishes.
Hodgson has received criticism for the club’s plateau, largely due to what many consider a dated approach that has limited the expressiveness of talents like the Anglo-Nigerian’s.
The 73-year-old’s steady hand has ensured continued PL participation, but at the expense of stifling Zaha and, recently, Eze.
This outcome is a disappointment due to the excitement that surrounded the 22-year-old’s arrival from Queens Park Rangers. At the time, the big-money signing was tipped to make the Eagles more watchable as opposed to the fleeting moments of brilliance that have been witnessed this year.
In truth, supporters will be pleased by their continued PL involvement, but they wouldn’t be happy with the club’s stagnation.
Even though it’s been one season, there’s a sense that newly-promoted Leeds United have overtaken Palace, while Aston Villa showed through their summer investment that they weren’t simply looking to just avoid the drop this term after last season’s close shave.
Admittedly, Hodgson’s troops have never been as close to the drop as Villa were in 19/20, still, the experienced manager understands the importance of strengthening the side during the off-season.
“This will be a good summer, in my opinion, to look into that aspect. Staying in this league doesn’t get any easier,” the Palace boss warned before Tuesday’s game vs Southampton. “If you don’t want [relegation] to happen to you then you can’t be blind to it and say: ‘We’ll be okay, we’ve had eight seasons here we’ll be fine.’ You can’t say that.
“We spent money on Eberechi Eze in the summer which I thought was money well spent, but these players have been together a long time and we haven’t really brought in that much new blood to help the guys who are there and provide them perhaps with some inspiration.”
Hodgson’s future remains uncertain, as does several players in the current squad, and this summer will have huge ramifications for the direction of the club.
If the manager knows it, then surely players like Zaha and Eze will be equally aware.
Another campaign like the recent ones in South London could be the final straw for the talented pair, who observers already feel need a sea change from the mid-table mediocrity at Selhurst Park.