Football works in mysterious ways. If you’re Crystal Palace that can mean beating Liverpool at Anfield and losing to Burnley at home in the space of a week – swings and roundabouts, as they say. Burnley hadn’t won away in the league this season before walking away from Selhurst Park with all three points, but the result was arguably as significant for Palace as for Sean Dyche’s reluctant travellers.
The defeat highlighted the need for investment in the Palace squad. Having grafted admirably to clinch an unlikely win at Anfield, being bested by the Clarets was a stark reminder of the long road ahead. Palace are six points above the relegation zone and should stay up, but narrowly avoiding the drop will not be tolerated next term considering how they knocked on the door of European football for a spell under Alan Pardew.
Palace chairman Steve Parish last week stood down from the line-up of the BBC’s entrepreneurial reality series Dragons’ Den before filming a single episode, because footballing matters require his undivided attention. That decision means it is set to be a busy summer for the club, with Parish working alongside Sam Allardyce to get the squad whipped into shape. Here are five positions they should look to strengthen – and the players that would strengthen them.
Right-back: Matteo Darmian
Although the Italian enjoyed a fine start to life at Manchester United under Louis van Gaal, he has often found himself watching from the bench, leading to suggestions that he may be prepared to leave Old Trafford. United’s deepening injury crisis in defence has seen the former Torino man return to the fray, but Jose Mourinho isn’t fully convinced by him, preferring to use Antonio Valencia at right-back – so the United manager may be swayed into selling.
The 27-year-old’s natural position is right-back and would provide solid competition for Joel Ward. The Italian’s boasts a better pass completion rate with 80%, average more interceptions per game at 2.25 and wins more aerial duels with 67%. Ward, on the other hand, is a more competent tackler and has a significantly higher take-on success rate with 58% to Darmian’s 37%.
That’s not to say Darmian doesn’t have his uses going forward – as Palace fans would attest to after seeing him score a thumping volley against them at Old Trafford. Ward and Darmian both have their strengths and weaknesses but, with the Italian eager to kick-start his Premier League career, Palace could be the ideal club to do it.
Centre-half: Winston Reid
Mamadou Sakho joining Palace in a last-gasp transfer deadline day switch was Allardyce’s masterstroke. The Frenchman, ostracised by Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, has been a rock at the back for the Eagles and his absence in the defeat to Burnley due to injury was impossible to ignore, as Martin Kelly and Damien Delaney struggled to keep Ashley Barnes and Sam Vokes in check. However, Sakho’s future beyond the end of the season – when his loan expires – is very much up in the air, and Palace would be wise to look at alternative targets if they end up failing to agree a deal with Liverpool.
Winston Reid is perhaps the strongest candidate. The 28-year-old New Zealand defender was excellent for Allardyce at West Ham and has continued to perform at a high level for the Hammers. His previous working relationship with Allardyce may attract him to a new challenge and the stats illustrate his potential to tighten up the Eagles’ back-line.
Reid averages more interceptions (3), blocks (0.81), clearances (8), aerial duels won (58%) and passes completed (82%) per game than either Sakho or Delaney, suggesting that he would be a clear upgrade on their current options as he excels in every major defensive department.
Prising him away from the east London club will certainly be problematic – but Palace would be foolish for not trying.
Central midfield: Didier Ndong
Described as the ‘new Michael Essien’ when he signed for Sunderland for a club record £13.5million last summer, Didier Ndong showed Palace fans what he could do when he dominated the midfield in the Black Cats’ 4-0 win over the Eagles earlier in the season.
While Sunderland have endured a thoroughly miserable season, Ndong has been one of the few shining lights – Jermain Defoe being another – and would offer considerable bite to Palace’s midfield, something Yohan Cabaye can’t quite provide. Luka Milivojević has been impressive since joining in January, but Allardyce is still hoping to add depth to his midfield, especially with Mathieu Flamini expected to leave the club.
Ndong doesn’t offer the same craft and guile as Cabaye but, as a robust ball-winner with the time to develop into a top player, he would be an excellent addition to this Palace side. Sunderland would certainly want to recoup most of the fee they paid for him last summer, though, which may be a potential stumbling block.
Winger: Demarai Gray
The future of Wilfried Zaha is likely to dominate transfer speculation at Palace this summer, and the club will certainly be looking at suitable replacements in case their prized asset decides to move on.
Demarai Gray is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the finest prospects the Premier League can offer at a reasonable price. Palace are likely to receive in excess of £20million for Zaha, which would put them in a strong position to sign the Leicester City winger, who has shown flashes of real potential for the Foxes.
Crucially, Gray has found his playing time restricted at the King Power Stadium (he was an unused substitute in their most recent game against West Brom) and may be attracted to the opportunity of playing regular first-team football in the Premier League.
Gray is undoubtedly less refined than Zaha but, at 20, he has plenty of time to learn – he’s likely to get a first-class education under Allardyce – and has shown that he has the devastating pace, directness and technique to become a regular fixture in a top-flight team.
He recently admitted to finding his bit-part role at Leicester frustrating – that could be Palace’s queue to swoop.
Striker: Khouma Babacar
Recent reports claimed that Palace saw a bid for the impressive Fiorentina striker rejected in January, but that shouldn’t deter them from enquiring once more, especially as the summer is naturally an easier time to sign players.
The 24-year-old Senegalese frontman has scored 13 times in 27 appearances for La Viola this season, establishing himself as a key player for Paulo Sousa’s side.
An explosive forward armed with a powerful shot (just ask Inter Milan) who is an expert at finding gaps in the opposition’s defence, Babacar would add another dimension to Palace’s attack, giving their midfielders a willing penetrative runner in behind – something Christian Benteke doesn’t offer.
Interestingly, Babacar has a better goals per game ratio with 0.50 to Benteke’s 0.41 and a better headed goals ratio with 0.17 to 0.16. With Bakary Sako, Frazier Campbell and Loïc Rémy’s futures all hanging in the balance, the time is right for Babacar to come in and offer stern opposition in attack for Benteke.
However, Babacar is a fan-favourite at Fiorentina and, having been with the club since he was 14, may be reluctant to leave.
“This city has welcomed me as a child, I feel indebted to them. I want to do something important for our fans,” he said following his strike against Inter. It certainly doesn’t offer a lot of hope but, then again, would Palace really have predicted a few years ago that Cabaye and Benteke would be in their starting line-up?