Tony Pulis didn’t want to come out and say it, even if this impressive 1-0 win against Aston Villa made enough of statement. “No, we’re not safe,” the Crystal Palace manager. “I will talk it about when we have done it.”
It’s impossible to not feel they’ve already done enough and that Pulis himself has done an incredible job. Palace have surely secured another season in the Premier League, in what must also be the achievement of the season. That they look so comfortable and confident at seven points clear of relegation is testament to Pulis, given the lowly position the club were in when he took over.
Survival is not mathematically certain but this was the kind of result and second-half performance that renders the facts academic. Pulis has undeniably made this team far greater than the sum of their parts and so much more solid than so many teams below them. Aston Villa, by contrast, can now add genuine anxiety to this season’s general sense of utter dissatisfaction. They are just four points above the relegation zone and not exactly playing like a team capable of rising.
In that, this game summed up the trajectories of these two teams. Palace started slowly, grew in confidence and ended looking admirably assured. By the time the revitalised Jason Puncheon held off Ryan Bertrand to fire in his side’s 76th-minute winner off the post, they could have been 3-0 up.
Villa were all over the place, disorganised and directionless. If this pattern continues, they could be heading down to the Championship. That is a real danger.
Paul Lambert’s side did finally create a threat of their own in the last 10 minutes after going a goal down and Andreas Weimann brought a brilliant 87th-minute save from Julian Speroni. That it came down to that, however, was not reflective of the game. Instead, the desperation that was evident in their late rally was more reflective of Villa’s dismal inability to rouse themselves.
Lambert looked rattled in his post-match press conference and repeated a variation of the phrase “we’ve got to win our next game” five times. He also insisted that single victory would be enough to pull them clear of the bottom three in the Premier League table. “We’re in that group,” he said. “You’re not in [the pack], you’re still a few points above, just trying to win the next game, that’s all we can do.”
Lambert also maintained his recent line that Villa have progressed immeasurably from last season, even if the actual numbers of the table don’t indicate that.
When pressed on it, and why the Villa manager thinks they’ve improved, he became agitated in hinting at issues behind the scenes. “You don’t know what’s happened,” Lambert said, before adding: “It’s private, I’m not going to tell.”
That minor dispute in the post-match press conference displayed more fight than his team had shown on the day. Although Lambert argued it was an “even” game that could have “gone either way”, the reality was rather different, especially so in the second half.
After Yannick Bolasie had fallen when about to finish a beautifully worked first-half free-kick, Palace picked up steam. Cameron Jerome hit the bar from close range after 54 minutes and Puncheon shaved the post with a long-range effort moments later.
Shortly afterwards, one of the assistant referees advised Howard Webb to overturn a penalty decision after the ball had hit Ciaran Clark’s chest rather than his arm. The referee did so but this was all just part of the surging Palace siege. Puncheon’s decisive goal was richly deserved.
It also ensured the club have won three successive games for the first time in 20 years. “It’s difficult,” Pulis said of the achievement. “You are always looking to go on a run and pick up those points. Let’s get the fourth [victory] in and then talk about next season.”
Finally, the Welshman was asked about the recent suggestion that sporting director Iain Moody had attempted to glean team information from former club Cardiff City. Pulis was dismissive.
“I’m never ever convinced about what team you’re going to play [against] until that team sheet comes in.” With Pulis himself, however, you know exactly what you are getting; solidity first of all and, now it would seem, survival.
Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Speroni; Mariappa, Dann, Delaney, Ward; Jedinak; Puncheon, Dikgacoi (Chamakh, 19), Ledley, Bolasie (Parr, 83); Jerome (Murray, 75).
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; Vlaar, Baker, Clark; Lowton, Westwood, El Ahmadi (Weimann, 82), Delph, Bertrand (Albrighton, 82); Agbonlahor, Holt.
Referee: Howard Webb.
Man of the match: Bolasie (Palace)
Match rating: 7/10