This match might have been a tale of two number 9s – Roberto Soldado, Tottenham’s £26m predator whose 24 goals last season all came from within the penalty area. Kevin Phillips, 40-year-old England international of eight previous clubs, trusted to keep Crystal Palace in the top flight. The pre-match anticipation was focused on the wealth of new players turning out for both sides. Spurs spent over £50m on Soldado, Paulinho, Nacer Chadli and Etienne Capoue to pave their route back to the Champions League. Palace invested the more modest £7m on Stephen Dobbie, Dwight Gayle and Jose Campana. Who would shine to keep Palace in the Premier League?
Mile Jedinak, the Eagles’ captain, emulated the guile and drive of an excellent Championship player but, like his teammates, he will need to prove there is more to him than that. Jez Moxey, although pressing far too high, exposing his defence once too often and a fault for the decisive moment of the game, was neat and swift when he played one two’s with Dobbie down the left. Owen Garvan was creative in possession, having a level of composure absent in many of the team for the first half an hour. Which made it all the more surprising, or desperate, when Ian Holloway pulled Dobbie and Garvan off – as part of a rare treble substitution late in the 2nd half with Aaron Wilbraham – for Phillips, Marouane Chamakh and Welsh under-21 midfielder Jonathan Williams.
Spurs were without their own Welshman, but had a trio of Belgians to rely on. Jan Vertonghen looked initially rusty but his continental style must have rubbed off on Michael Dawson. His urgent and erratic appearance of a crazed PE teacher, rushing forward with the ball, arms flailing desperately, has been replaced with an ambling insouciance, more at home in a training game. Although some things never change; Spurs struggled to create chances from indirect free-kicks and corners. Dembele grazed the crossbar and Siggurdsson forced an exceptional save from Speroni in the first half whilst Kyle Walker and Danny Rose showed it wasn’t just a day for the new boys with some excellent and, some may say, uncharacteristically good football. Rose looks almost like a ready-made replacement for Bale.
Palace began in 4-3-3 and, initially, shows all the tell-tale signs of a recently promoted club; an endless supply of energy but without the experience to be economical with their work rate, clumsy in their challenges, hastily putting the ball into areas where no teammate could be found. They will need to iron these facets out if they are to compete with better teams than Tottenham. The game opened up after Holloway’s changes which, as he should know from his time at Blackpool, leaves the ‘minnows’ swimming against the tide in the hope of securing a vital goal. The game could have been a real banana skin for their visitors and they needed to start better than last season’s two points from three games.
Just seconds after a penalty call, Spurs got their way to help them avoid that fate. Kyle Walker played Aaron Lennon into the box and his low drive was blocked by Moxey’s desperate lunge. However, Mark Clattenburg blew for the penalty as the block came from his arm. Soldado stepped up and sent Lionel Speroni the wrong way with a goal that was a carbon copy of his strike against Espanyol – and the result would finish the same way too, extending Spurs unbeaten run of eight Premier League games.
That said, the man of the match, which could have gone to Jedinak on another day, was awarded to Paulinho. Sean Connery was awarded the role of James Bond after Harry Saltzman saw him “strolling like a panther”. Paulinho might have given the producer pause for thought as he confidently, purposefully, patrolled the centre of the pitch. Like Michael Carrick before him, his best games would appear to be those you hardly know he’s playing in. His eye for an interception, simple, short passes and devastating build-up play has none of the Hollywood glamour Crystal Palace might have expected to enjoy in the big leagues. With Palace failing to press high, which could have taken advantage of the two centre-backs’ lack of pre-season training, Paulinho was free to collect the ball and connect with players in more attacking positions, almost at will. His 79th minute sliding interception was a great example; the ball landed at Soldado’s feet, who set up Chadli’s off-target shot, showing how quickly he can turn a defensive scenario into an offensive one. Interestingly, although he only played 33 minutes and ballooned one shot high, wide and handsome, Etienne Capoue made more interceptions (6) than any other player on the pitch managed, showing he could be a monster.
Crystal Palace could have conceded more as the stats suggest – five chances to fifteen and a lower percentage of the possession. However, there are strong signs that they will score plenty of goals – Phillips curling runs between right-back and centre-back would have paid off with a little more support and Chamakh drops deep to win headers that will craft chances, especially when last season’s top-scorer, Glen Murray, returns from injury. The rapid Dwight Gayle, who was very recently on the books at Bishops Stortford FC, is a rapid player with good control, although he does appear to go to ground cheaply.
Whether or not that’s sufficient for the new boys to stay up, and bookies say they won’t, they have staked a claim for the most patronising award of the ‘Best Supporters’. At times, it felt as if Bayer Leverkusen or Borussia Dortmund had relocated to South London; a giant ‘Saw’-influenced banner and a mosaic of blue and red flags covered one end of the ground. The chants never dropped and there was a constant thrum of noise and beat of drums. Selhurst Park was a festival in full swing and the football was the headline act.
At the final whistle, Spurs’ new crop may have edged out the Eagles but in their last Premier League adventure they took four points from Tottenham. They should remember that everyone is beatable in this league and there were signs that they have the ability to cause a similar upset to another big club. Assuming Holloway’s substitutions pay-off.